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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

Find the "Right Fit" Schools For You: How to Start Your College Search

Applications are easier, less stressful, and more rewarding when you approach them in a three-step process:

  1. Understand Yourself

  2. Find the Right Fit Schools For You

  3. Apply With Purpose

Last time, I suggested some ways of reflecting on who you are, how you learn best, and what you want from your college education. Once you have a good sense of yourself and your post-high school direction, it's time for step #2: finding the colleges and universities that will help you accomplish your goals and be happy at the same time. These schools -- the ones where you'll thrive academically, personally, and socially -- are the "right fit" for you. How do you find them? Keep reading!

What is the "Right Fit": Factors to Consider

We can all agree that the University of Notre Dame, The Ohio State University, and the College of Wooster are very different schools, and generally speaking, we can probably all explain why. One is a mid-sized Catholic university, one is a very large public university, and one is a small (private) liberal arts college. If size, religious affiliation, and type of curriculum matter to you, then you might have strong feelings about which one(s) are, or aren't, a good fit for you.

But what makes mid-sized, private Case Western Reserve University different from mid-sized, private Washington University in St. Louis? And what makes small, liberal arts Oberlin College distinct from small, liberal arts Kenyon College? How can you tell which ones are best for you?

Before you consider any specific institutions, consider the following factors that make any given school different from (or similar to) other schools. By exploring how these factors might affect your experience as a student, you can develop a set a criteria for schools that fit you well.

Campus Life / Social Factors
  • SIZE: What is your comfort level with very large or very small schools? Are you more relaxed when you're surrounded by familiar faces? Do you prefer anonymity among strangers? Beyond comfort, consider the typical characteristics of schools of different sizes:

Small schools (< 3,000 students) typically have smaller, more discussion-based classes; a more tight-knit community; greater undergraduate access to faculty members; a majority of classes, discussion groups, and office hours led by professors (rather than graduate student teaching assistants); and more research and collaborative opportunities for undergrads (because there are often fewer grad students on campus).

Large schools (> 10,000 students) typically have more course and major options; larger, more lecture-based classes; more classes, discussion groups, and office hours led by teaching assistants rather than professors; more extracurricular activities, organizations, and pre-professional opportunities; and more options for students who are unsure of their major or decide to switch majors.

Mid-sized schools (approx. 3,000-10,000 students) typically have a tighter-knit community than their larger counterparts; a more pre-professional focus than smaller schools, which tend to be liberal arts colleges; and mix of teaching-focused and research-focused faculty.

  • LOCATION: Are you more "city" or more "country"? Do you like traditional campus quads or campuses that blend with the surrounding community? Ski slopes or surf boards? West Coast or East Coast (or neither)? Do you want to your college to feel "like home" or do you want to try something new? Do you need easy airport access? How do you feel about public transportation? Will you be happy living several hours from your family? Will you be unhappy at the college down the street? Consider your favorite weather but also the logistics of getting where you need and want to go.

  • AFFLIATION (e.g. Christian, Catholic, historically Black, women- or men-only): Consider your identities, communities, and beliefs. Now consider how important these are to your college experience. Is it crucial or not crucial that your classmates look and think like you? How important is it that your education -- your course requirements, for example -- include aspects of your identity or belief system? Is a religious, racial, ethnic, or gender-based affiliation a "deal breaker," a "must have," or a neutral factor for you?

  • EXTRACURRICULAR OPPORTUNITIES: Do you want to join a debate club, or an acapella group, or an NCAA sports team in college? Do you need both a wind ensemble and a flute choir? Do you want an ROTC program? A competitive chess team? A school where it's easy to start new student activities? Make a list of essential, outside-of-class activities, and then make sure that the schools you're applying to offer them.

  • "VIBE": This factor can be hard to describe, but vibe is important for sense of belonging and, consequently, for wellbeing and success in college. Any or all of the following can contribute to "vibe," which is subjective and most identifiable during in-person campus visits:

School spirit: students' enthusiasm for on-campus events, often those related to sports; sometimes manifested in clothing bearing the school name or mascot

Student style/characteristics: for example, "preppy," "artsy," "alternative," "outdoorsy," "brainy," "athletic" (all of these terms are in quotation marks because they are subjective, relative, and not mutually exclusive -- but you get the idea)

Level of activism and engagement: level of student interest in political, social, and community issues; prominence of rallies, protests, donation drives, marches for a cause, etc., on campus

Tolerance of differences: level of safety and support for all students, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, religion, age, and any other factor

Social culture: prominence of fraternities and sororities (i.e. Greek life), prominence of weekend and weekday "partying" vs. attending arts performances vs. studying, etc. (what students do and how they behave outside of class)

Academic Factors
  • CURRICULUM / TYPE OF SCHOOL: At the most basic level, this is a question of liberal arts college vs. research university. At the most abstract, this is a question of how you think about the purpose of your college education. Put simply, is college for learning to think critically and clearly -- for building a broad, theoretical foundation across several disciplines that will prepare you for job training and specialization after college? Or, do you think college is the place to prepare for a specific career -- to learn "hard" skills that you can (more or less) directly apply in your job after college? If you think college is for building interdisciplinary, theoretical knowledge, you might find that liberal arts colleges offer the educational approach and curriculum you're looking for. If you want more pre-professional training, you might be more drawn to research universities, which tend to have more specialized or vocational programs and resources. To be clear, this distinction has nothing to do with the ease or difficulty of getting a job after college, which may be more or less difficult with a degree from either type of school. It's also not about whether you're studying arts and humanities or science; liberal arts colleges have very competitive science programs too! Rather, the distinction lies in the school's educational philosophy: how the school envisions that the education it provides you is preparing you for your future. Few schools are strictly liberal arts with no pre-professional programs (and vice versa). But knowing that you prefer one over the other can help you determine which schools fit you better than others.

  • LEVEL OF INTENSITY: For nearly all students, any college will offer intellectually challenging courses. This factor is not about whether the school is "hard" or "easy." Rather, it's about the pressure, rigor, and the pace of the learning environment -- for example, the amount of assignments (and what kind of assignments), or the amount of writing required. Are assessments based on memorization or application of course content? How much outside-of-class preparation is required or expected? How much, or how little, are grades inflated? Are you looking for a more "scholarly" experience or an experience that is more balanced between academic and social life? Do you respond well in high-pressure situations, or do you learn better in a more relaxed environment? There are no right answers -- only better or worse environments for you, depending on your needs and preferences.

  • MAJORS, MINORS, AND ACADEMIC OFFERINGS: You certainly don't need to have a career picked out when you apply to college, and it's true that your major doesn't need to correlate exactly to your future career (for example, you can major in Spanish and then go to medical school, like my friend Laura did). But if you want to be an aerospace engineer, then you'll surely want to apply to schools that have engineering programs; and, ideally, the schools you apply to will also offer aerospace coursework. If you want to be a teacher, then schools that offer licensure as part of the education major may be a better fit for you (from a practical standpoint) than schools that don't. Aside from majors and careers, if studying abroad or landing an internship or doing research in college is important to you, then make a note of this so you can identify schools that offer such programs.

  • SUPPORT: Included in this category are accessibility of faculty and instructors, accommodations for learning differences, tutoring and counseling services, level of peer and student-faculty collaboration, career services, and more, depending on what kind of support you anticipate needing or wanting. What does it mean for you to be well-supported in school? Is it important to you that your professors be available to hash out their lectures each week? Do you learn best when you meet with your peers in study groups? Do you need extra time on tests or a designated note taker? Support varies widely from one institution to the next, and knowing which supports you need can help guide your school search.

Financial Factors

Finally, consider how much you and your family can afford to spend on college, and compare it to the cost of attending any given school. If there is a discrepancy, have a plan for making up the difference, whether that means merit- or need-based aid, federal or institutional aid, scholarships, or loans. Financial fit is important because stretching yourself too much can lead to years or even decades of student loan debt that may not be strictly necessary for your long-term success (and may even be detrimental to it). Keep in mind that, if you qualify for financial aid, you are unlikely to pay the full sticker price for college, so you shouldn't rule out certain schools or types of schools because of the tuition cost alone. But be smart about your financial constraints, and know that your success in and after college is more dependent on what you do in college -- whichever one you go to -- than it is on the name of the school on your diploma.

Don't let these factors for consideration overwhelm you! Instead, think about this exercise in terms of designing the perfect college for you. You might not find everything you're looking for, but the more details you have about what you want in your future school (and why you want those things), the more likely you are to find schools where you'll thrive academically, personally, and socially.

Not sure how to organize your thoughts? Try Dr. Steven Antonoff's "Qualities That Will Make a College Right For You" worksheet, which you can find free online here.

Find the "Right Fit" Schools For You: Where and How to (Re)Search

Now that you know which factors are most important in your future college, how should you find the schools that have what you're looking for? And how do you determine which ones fit you best? I like to think about this in two phases: search (build a list of "right fit" schools that match your criteria) and research (narrow your list to the "best fit" schools where you will thrive).

Where to Search (building your list)
  • Use a college search tool, such as College Navigator, College Scorecard, or College Board's BigFuture College Search, and select as many of "must-have" factors as possible.

  • Ask your school counselor, teachers, and knowledgeable adults and friends for college and university recommendations based on your priorities and what they know about you already.

  • Take an interest, aptitude, personality, or other type of assessment (see here for ideas) to determine strengths and weaknesses, and then review your career and college matches.

  • Talk to an independent educational consultant about what you are looking for in your college experience. IECs make excellent school list building resources because part of their job is visiting college campuses and learning more about them than is available online (for example, sensing a school's "vibe"). I offer college search and list building services in both my Comprehensive College Planning package for 11th graders and in my customizable Application Support package for 12th graders.

As you search, keep an open mind, and make a long list of schools that fit most, or even just some, of your criteria. This could be 15-20 schools or more! Aim for inclusion rather than exclusion, and don't think too much about the schools' level of selectivity at this point. Ultimately, your list should include schools at which admission is "likely," "possible," and "unlikely" (or, in other words, "safety," "target," and "reach" schools), so your long list should include a variety of each type as well. After you conduct more research, you'll be able to make a more informed decision about whether each school is a place where you'll thrive as a student.

How to Research (narrowing your list)

Once you have a long list of possible schools, do your homework to determine which ones fit you best. Your goal is to narrow your long list to the 8-12 schools to which you will actually apply. Here are strategies for thorough research:

  • Find and carefully review each school's website, as well as it's undergraduate admissions page and its social media. Things to look for: information about the school's mission and priorities, as they appear online (for example, how is the school marketing itself to you, what does it seem to be foregrounding, and what does it seem to care about in its promotional materials); academic programs, including majors and minors, of interest to you; student and campus life information (clubs and organizations but also housing, dining, transportation, and other aspects of day-to-day life on campus); application requirements; and anything else that's relevant based on your unique needs and preferences. Don't forget to check official (and unofficial) YouTube channels for videos that might show you more of the school.

  • Sign up for admissions office programming. Offerings vary by school, but they often include in-person information sessions and campus tours, virtual information sessions and campus tours, special sessions for individual colleges or majors within a larger university (for example, College of Engineering or College of Arts & Sciences), and special interest programming (for example, tours of athletic or arts facilities). Find out what the schools you're interested in offer at the admissions office webpage, and register to attend. Most schools offer several sessions and tours each week, but they do fill up, so consult your calendar and plan visits in advance.

  • Visit as many campuses as you can -- in person, if possible, and, ideally, by attending an admissions office program. Things to look for and do on campus: check out the facilities (campus buildings and infrastructure); observe and talk to students; go inside a dormitory and even a dorm room, if you can; attend a class; eat in a dining hall or take a coffee break at the student center or main area where students hang out; go inside the library and notice what's happening there; stay overnight with a student host and attend on- or off-campus social events. Be sure to take notes, or try using a standardized worksheet, like this one, to ensure that you're observing and recording similar information at each school you visit.

  • Read "third-party" reviews, such as those provided by Niche and Unigo, both of which include recent student reviews. While these can be helpful in finding out more about a school than what is published on its own website, you should always read reviews "with a grain of salt" -- just like you do for product reviews on Amazon.

  • Talk to current students about their experiences (academically, socially, personally, and whichever way matters to you). You can find current or recent students through your own family/friend/acquaintance network, by asking your school counselor or teachers if any recent graduates of your high school have attended certain colleges, by meeting students at admissions office events or by approaching them on campus, or even by contacting the admissions office to ask whether they can put you in touch with a current student.

  • Estimate the cost of attending each school. Your cost of attendance includes the school's tuition but also living expenses, the cost of supplies, transportation costs, and so on. Consider that these costs might be different for each school, depending (for example) on where it is. Most colleges provide a net price calculator or a financial aid estimator on their financial aid office websites. While these provide estimates only, they can be helpful in determining a school's financial fit before you decide whether to apply. It's also a good idea to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible so that you know your student aid index (previously called the Expected Family Contribution) before you submit your college applications. You can estimate your federal student aid here.

  • Finally, take notes about what you discover at and about each school. You will be researching many schools, and some information is bound to run together at some point. By taking detailed (and, hopefully, organized!) notes, you can help yourself make more informed decisions about which schools to keep on your list and which to cut. Furthermore, you'll have a solid foundation for starting your supplemental essays, which often ask questions like "why are you applying to our school?"

As you find out more about each school on your long list, you should be able eliminate some schools fairly easily. Others might be harder. As you are shaping your narrowed list, remember to consider your likelihood of admission. Ultimately, your goal should be to have as many good options as possible when it's time to decide where to enroll. You can maximize your options with a list of schools that is well balanced between "likely," "possible," and "unlikely" admission (that is, "safety," "target," and "reach" schools). Aim high, and don't underestimate yourself. But have reasonable expectations, both for the outcome of your application and what your experience would be like at any given school (in other words, don't forget your priorities when narrowing your list!). A well-balanced, 10-school list typically includes 4-5 "unlikely" (reach, or aspirational) schools, 3-4 "possible" (target) schools, and 2-3 "likely" (safety) schools. If every school on your well-balanced list is a great fit for you, you can expect to choose from several excellent options, and to thrive wherever you end up.

Finding the "right fit" schools for you can be arduous, but it should also be exciting and enlightening. You're likely to find out more about yourself as you consider the factors that matter to you in your college education and experience and as you research the schools you might like to attend. Once you have a narrowed school list (and know exactly why those schools are great for you), you're ready to begin your applications. Stay tuned for tips and tricks on step #3 in the college application process: Apply With Purpose.

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