Most of us have a few pairs of shoes in our closet – shoes for sports, church, the beach or the ballroom – and most of us have one or two pairs that we love and wear over and over. Why? Because they fit beautifully, look good, take us places, and bring us happiness. Fit is frequently referred to when speaking with students about choosing the ‘right’ college, and many of those same students are puzzled about what is the ‘right’ fit. So, as you gaze upon that favorite pair of shoes, let’s think through the puzzle.
First, get rid of the notion that you have to find that one ‘perfect’ college – there is no such thing! There are so many options for you to explore, and many of those options would give you what you seek: a great education in an area of interest that will move you forward into your first job or advanced training/education in your chosen field of study. So start with some serious self-reflection. Really think about what you want from your college experience. What matters to you and why? Where do your strengths, passions, interests, and abilities lie? Are you independent and self-sufficient or would you thrive living closer to home? What are your goals in life – money, happiness, knowledge? Consider it all and chat about it with your best friends and family - they probably have some interesting insights. You need to embark upon this journey before you start working on your college essay too.
There are some core components to a good fit that you should explore, compare and contrast in each of your colleges of interest:
Location – Consider urban, rural, suburban; close to home or far away.
Size of student body – Note both under-graduate and graduate population.
Academic options – Does the college have the major in which you have a primary interest? Are there other majors of interest should the first one not be what you want?
Diversity of students – Consider in-state, out of state, commuter campus, geographic, ethnic and religious diversity.
Extracurricular options – Investigate clubs of interest, variety of on-campus activities.
Housing – Are there options for single rooms, suites for students with shared majors/interests?
Campus ethos – Do you ‘feel’ comfortable when you walk around, eat in the dining halls, attend a class? Do Greek organizations rule the day? Is the college centered around their sports teams?
Cost of attendance – Go beyond the sticker price and ask hard questions about financial aid, merit aid, scholarships and work opportunities.
Career placement – Is there a strong career office that helps with intern-ships and job placements?
Study abroad – Does the college en-courage students to expand their horizons by studying abroad? Does it offer many study abroad pro-grams?
So many families start and finish their exploration and research with rankings and this is a very narrow and imperfect way of finding the perfect college. In fact, a recent study conducted by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, clearly shows that the best way to find the right fit is to completely ignore those rankings. Denise Pope, a Stanford senior lecturer, stated, “…the most successful students,both in college and beyond, are the ones who engage in the undergraduate experience regardless of how selective a school may be.” Finding a great mentor while you are in college can deeply impact a student’s ability to thrive and reach forward successfully into the future. Find out if the college under consideration encourages close mentoring relationships with faculty and look for a student body that is involved in many activities that supplement their learning and build strong connections.
All of this tells us that students need to seek out affordable institutions within which they will thrive. Colleges should have a supportive and engaged faculty and student body, offer opportunities to dive deeply into your chosen field of study in and out of the classroom, and provide the ability to become part of an academic community that will nurture your interests over the years and beyond. Keep an open mind as you research the many choices, and spend time exploring those that rise to the top. Talk to your counselor and teachers; visit the campus and speak to students you meet; seek out people engaged in work you are interested in and ask them about their college experiences;and do a lot of research online. Colleges provide so much information on their websites – use them as a helpful tool. You’ll see that you can be successful in many colleges;there are great options for everyone,but don’t let those ranking magazines be your guide.