Whatever Happened To College Fit?

What’s missing from the conversation about college admissions?

One of the big shifts we've noticed in the last five years is that families have become more focused on their students attending highly selective colleges. We often hear students and parents citing U.S. News rankings as the final word on a college’s quality. But rankings and name brand leave out a critical component: the student.

One of the great things about being a consultant is that we have the pleasure of visiting both well-known colleges and more obscure colleges. We are amazed at the high quality of education and campus life experience offered at such a wide variety of colleges.

Recently, an extensive college tour, we revisited some old favorites, such as Rhodes, Wash U, and Sewanee. But we also discovered some hidden gems, like the University of Alabama at Huntsville and St. Louis University, which offered an excellent educational experience as well as unique programs and experiential learning opportunities with a lot of available merit aid. We could already think of many students we work with who would thrive academically, socially, and financially at some of these lesser-known but wonderful colleges.

That’s why we think we need to broaden our perspective when researching potential colleges and remember that fit to the student—not a ranking based on limited criteria—is the most important factor in deciding where to apply.

In our experience, the key to finding the right fit for a student has three main components:

  1. Academics. The academic environment of a college is critical to a student’s success. There are such a wide variety of academic options in our country. What has worked well for the student in high school? Where did they shine academically? Did they love small discussion classes, or did they prefer lecture-based learning? Do they want to be the highest-performing student in the class, or do they like being pulled up by their peers? Does a test-based environment work for the student, or do they get more out of project-based learning? Answering these questions will help your student narrow their college lists to schools that will truly be a good fit for them.

  2. Social Environment. Schools differ drastically in terms of social experience, and you want to be sure that your student will feel comfortable at the college they choose. Do they tend to have large groups of friends or stick to a smaller, more tight-knit group? Are they the type of person that wants to get involved in a wide variety of campus activities, or will they focus on one or two key activities? Is Greek life important? Are campus traditions important? Different schools have different social opportunities, so keep that in mind when thinking about fit.

  3. Location. It seems simple, but location can make or break your student's experience at college. Is your student comfortable being away from home, or do they prefer to be within driving distance? Are specific climates challenging for the student? Do they have talents or hobbies that might lead them to a specific part of the country?

When considering a college, rather than pulling up the rankings or focusing only on well-known colleges, we challenge families to integrate college fit into the discussion. How do you do this? One trick is to stop using the names of colleges. Instead, have your student describe their dream college. What does it look like? Who are the people in their classes? What is the surrounding area like? What will they learn? How will they translate the classroom experience into real life? What kind of mentors do they hope to find? What does a successful college experience look like?

The more space we allow for students to think about what they want in college, the more likely we are to help them find colleges where they will thrive.