The term “fit” is likely one of the most overused in the college admissions process (up there with “holistic”). But hey, it’s a word that’s trying to capture a really essential part of your college search: identifying institutions that align with the kind of educational environment where you will succeed academically and thrive socially. A college or university will likely be a good fit if it offers a set of experiences that satisfy your expectations for your 4+ years there. Essentially, will you be happy there? Before we outline how we assess fit, two important disclaimers from my former-college-counselor perspective:
1. There are many, many colleges that can/will be a good fit for you. Finding the right “fit” does not mean you identify a single college that can make all your dreams come true. It means you have a sense of the qualities against which you will measure potential institutions.
2. Fit is but one major part of your college list-making process! Admissibility and affordability are important, too. But duh, you know this because obvs you’re my biggest fan and you’ve read all my past blogs.
As with many research-based endeavors, we can use some of our five “W” essential questions to gauge whether a potential college aligns with what we’re seeking for our college experience.
Two pieces to this: 1) how many students are enrolled? and 2) what is their community like?
Size: Colleges come in lots of sizes. There are the extra-small (like College of the Atlantic in my home state, with 350 total students), the extra-large (the Ohio State University enrolls more than 45,000 undergraduates), and everything in between. The size of the student population affects the number and variety of academic programs and extracurricular organizations available, the number of students in each class, and the demands on faculty attention. Because there is sufficient student interest, a larger university may be able to offer more specialized, uncommon disciplines or simply have MORE of some things (think dance groups or musical ensembles). Smaller colleges might have fewer options, but their scale often allows for many intimate, discussion-based classes that enable organic student-faculty relationships to form. Neither large or small is inherently better; you have to determine the scale that best suits you. And of course, there are places like Tufts that fall in the middle of this spectrum and draw on the strengths of both the large and the small... (shameless plug).
Campus culture: The vibe of a college is a pretty abstract, imperfect metric, because college campuses are ultimately created from a community of individuals with distinct personalities, values, and identities. Still, I encourage you to investigate whether there are unifying similarities among those who choose to call a place home. This doesn’t mean rely on stereotypes; it means engage with real people as best you can (in person, via email, and by reading/listening to their stories online and in print). When asked, how do the students describe their peers? Ambitious, focused, driven? Generous, collaborative, kind? Curious, nerdy, eager to learn? Service-minded, politically engaged, activist-y? Athletic? Artistic? Entrepreneurial? Sophisticated? Humble? Relaxed? Stressed? Passionate?
As you gather these impressions - from a diverse sample, like a good little researcher - I suspect you’ll be able to determine whether the culture of a campus can offer you a sense of belonging and can be a place where you will be inspired and enriched by your peers.
As someone who let their intended major drive most of their college search process, I’m going to start by stating a bias I have against selecting a college because of academic program. This is because, my young friends, there is a very high likelihood that as you learn more about yourself and about the world, your academic interests will evolve and change during your first years of college. HOWEVER, ahem, I do agree that part of this idea of “fit” means seeking schools that will allow you to study several subjects you enjoy and feel excited to pursue. Simply put, you're not going to be happy if you can't study the things you like. So yes, we need to do some research into the academic offerings, pre-professional advising, and degree requirements to be sure that the classroom experience aligns with our goals. We know a school is a good fit when there are multiple academic pathways that appeal to us and when the disciplines that excite our intellectual curiosity are widely available.
The model or structure of an institution is also part of fit. Are we seeking a research university where faculty are expected to make and publish new discoveries and where we have access to graduate-level opportunities? Are we seeking a liberal arts college where students are encouraged to explore the breadth of the curriculum in a tight-knit, supportive setting? Are we seeking a pre-professional or specialized program in which students are well-trained for a discrete set of career fields? These are not necessarily distinct categories, but the nature of the institution shapes the educational experience and these criterion will help you narrow your list of potential schools significantly.
Location and setting probably matter a lot to you as you consider fit. They did to me. And you know the drill: urban, suburban, rural, close to home, across the country, across the world. Geographic “fit” also includes how accessible it will be to travel home for extended breaks (where are the nearest airport and train/bus station?) and how easy it will be to find a place for a haircut. Setting is also about “sense of place.” How connected is the college community to the surrounding communities? What is the college’s relationship to the history of its land? How do students, faculty, and staff share their knowledge outside the campus boundaries? What has the college put in place to ensure mutually-enriching relationships with its neighbors? We may not always love our physical location (I’m sweating in Somerville right now) but finding a college whose surroundings will help you feel safe, secure, and connected is key.
Congrats if you made it to the end of another Sean Ashburn blog. The moral here: there are so, so many qualities involved in determining whether a college will be a “good fit” for you (have I overused quotation marks? The answer is yes) but I encourage you to utilize the questions I’ve laid out above as you apply your mental (or physical!) rubric to your college search process.