Finding the right fit: Navigating the college search and selection process

Finding the right fit: Navigating the college search and selection process

Early on in the college search process, you will likely begin hearing the terms “fit” or “match” as it relates to identifying the appropriate schools for students. The road to finding a collegiate environment where a student can thrive begins with self-evaluation and reflection. Many students come into the process with broad ideas about the criteria they wish to use in reviewing their college options such as general location, size, and sometimes major. Most search engines will allow the modification of these types of criteria to help narrow the thousands of schools in the US alone. These generic characteristics on their own; however, do little to help a student and their family to assess how a student might fare on a particular campus. Here’s a few steps students can take to better understand the characteristics of colleges that will best serve them:

Ignore the rankings: In a previous blog, we discussed the history and utility (or lack thereof) of college rankings like the US News and World Report. The most important take-away is that these rankings likely do not use metrics that would be most important to you in evaluating a college. Students and families must stay grounded in their own goals, priorities, and values to lead their search successfully.

Prioritize your preferences: The first, and sometimes most challenging, part of the college search process is identifying the criteria with which a student will evaluate a college. They must ask themselves what factors are most important to them when they envision their college experience as well as what they hope to achieve before and after graduation. These can be daunting questions for a teen! They should take solace in the knowledge that there are many paths towards their goals, and it’s quite normal for these goals (and criteria) to shift and change throughout the college process and the rest of their lives. That being said, students should evaluate their strengths and values first and combine those with other preferences about academics, campus life, support services, and enrichment opportunities, among others to create their overall list of criteria. Then they should order that list by importance to help create their own version of ranking as they research various colleges.

Evaluate your options: Conducting effective research on potential colleges is far more than looking at student body population, admission statistics, and the student-to-faculty ratio. Quantitative factors such as these can be useful, but shouldn’t be the main metrics for figuring out if a student will be best served by a college or university. Reviewing more qualitative information such as the mission statement, the curriculum for majors of interest, student organizations list or calendar, the types of support services available, and many others will provide greater depth to your analysis when compared to a student’s values and goals. Don’t just limit your research to the school’s website! Other resources include:

Ask your counselor for help – they will be able to guide you to particular resources based on your unique list of values and priorities (and will likely be able to ask questions to help make this list more robust!).

College search engine sites

Current students and alumni of the college or university

College visits – don’t be afraid to ask your questions in person and compare to what you can observe on your own (ie, is there camaraderie or school spirit?)

Virtual events hosted by the college – don’t limit yourself to admission office events; if there is a speaker or other opportunity that is open to the public, go and observe.

College faculty and staff – if you have a specific area of interest or concern, do not be afraid to reach out to those who can best answer your questions.

Finding “fit”: Ultimately, the best “fit” colleges for a student will be those who best align with their priorities and preferences. Students are most successful long-term when they are able to find an environment that meets their needs for academic and non-academic areas of interest (aka balance!), provides appropriate levels of support and makes space for their continued growth and development. Students often believe that they need to adjust themselves in their applications to sound appealing to the college, but doing this work on this research upfront ensures that students will build a list of “right fit” schools to apply to, making the process of strategy and application (and ultimately, final selection) a little bit easier. At the end of the process, the goal is to be able to say that all of the school’s a student has been admitted to would serve them well!

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