Contributed by: Stacey Cunitz, Director of Blue Moon Educational Consulting
Last month we examined the US News rankings and why they are not a good way to conduct your college search. This month, we will take a look at the notion of “fit” and how to find it.
“Fit” means searching for a college that will nurture and inspire you to become your best self. Different educational experiences can potentially lead to a different “self” upon graduation. By choosing a college that is a good “fit,” you maximize your potential to become the best version of yourself: the one who has developed your skills, knows yourself well, has as little debt as possible, and has a résumé that supports your next applications, whether for a job or graduate school.
A great education is not passive; it is active and engaged. Students who are engaged in their education play an active role in classroom activities, including lab work, discussions, group work, research with professors, and projects. Outside of the classroom, opportunities for engagement include internships or co-ops, independent research, study abroad, leadership in student organizations, and community service. So the question is: Where are you more likely to have those opportunities and to take advantage of them? Let’s dig in.
Academic Fit: In order to find a school that is a good academic fit, you have to know yourself. Are you someone who thrives when you are at the top of the class and can take on leadership? Do you do well under pressure? Do you prefer more of a work/life balance? Are you someone who rises to high expectations? Or are you someone who is inspired by less structure? Knowing where you thrive will help you choose a school that is right for you academically.
Knowing that a great education is active rather than passive, do you feel you can be active in a lecture class of 300 students? Will you be the student who goes to office hours to chat with the professors? Will you hunt down the TA to get extra help? Will you apply for the internship even though no one specifically told you about it? Or will you do better in a smaller environment where professors know your name and perhaps invite you to apply for a research position or internship?
Social Fit: Like academic fit, social fit is multifaceted. First, you might look at who you enjoy being around. Picture yourself at college: who do you see? Artists? Intellectual thinkers? Gamers? Athletes? Is ethnic/racial diversity important to you? Do you want to be with others who practice your religion?
Second, you might look at the size of the school community. Do you see yourself as more comfortable in a small group where people know each other well or in a bustling, large community where there are always a lot of new faces? One of our students said about his school of 3,500 students, “There are always new faces in every room I’m in, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a room where I don’t know anyone.” We think this is a great example of what it feels like to be at a small to medium sized school. At a large school, you might not have even one class with someone you know. At a small school, you might know many of the people in all of your classes. Which is right for you?
Financial Fit: Graduating with little to no debt is a challenging but worthy goal. People who carry a lot of debt find themselves making life choices based on their debt instead of based on what might be best for their career or quality of life. Some families will qualify for a lot of need-based aid. If this is your situation, you should look for schools that meet 100% (or very close to it) of demonstrated need. Other families will not qualify for much, if any, need-based aid, but may still have trouble affording tuition and fees. Those families will likely rely on merit aid and discounting. If this is your situation, look for schools where you are a particularly attractive candidate. For example, a regional school in the Midwest might be looking to attract more east coast students. Or, perhaps your GPA and test scores put you at the top of the class, making you a likely candidate for merit aid. Students who are dedicated to service can sometimes get scholarship money from colleges that share that value. You might also apply to a public school in your state as a “financial safety” school.
As you can see, “fit” is more complicated than just looking at a list of schools. It requires you first and foremost to understand yourself and what educational experiences will allow you to thrive. Then, it is up to you to dig into the various colleges to find out whether they will be able to meet your needs and expectations. You can do this on your own or with guidance from your school counselor or other experts. Research on the internet, use guidebooks, and visit where you can. At the end of the day, finding the right fit will help you on your journey to becoming the best version of you.
Photo by Tim Gouw