“What are the best colleges that I can I get into?” When choosing colleges to apply to, this is the first question that we find most high school students asking themselves. Although selectivity is a very important factor that all students should consider, the best question to first ask yourself is “What are the colleges that fit me the best?”
Picking a college is a lot like picking a spouse or a person to date. Relationships don’t just work because you picked the most popular guy or girl to date or marry. Lasting and successful relationships are based on mutual fit of personalities, interests, lifestyles, etc. College is no different. Your college experience won’t be successful simply because you picked the most “popular” college. It’s all about how well that college fits you.
This idea of student-college fit is how college admissions thinks about the admissions process. They see their college as a special community with a unique personality that they’re proud of. Yes, they want to admit the highest-achieving students, but that’s not the only thing they are looking for in their applicants. They also looking for student-college fit.
We split up “Fit” into three main types. As you put together your short list of colleges to apply to, it’s important that there is college-student fit in all three ways. Otherwise, you’ll find it harder to get admitted by admissions when they recognize a lack of fit when reviewing your application. But most importantly, you’ll be opening yourself up to possible disappointment when you get on campus and find that it’s not the ideal educational environmental and community for you.
Colleges, like teachers, have their own unique styles of teaching. Although the specific professors and instructors within a school vary widely, the systems within a college play a big role in what type of learner will thrive. For example, what are the class sizes? Are the courses taught by professors or graduate students? How accessible are the professors to undergraduate students? Do they even have office hours? What kind of meaningful research opportunities are available for undergrads? Does the college encourage project-based learning or is it more traditional in its pedagogical approach? Does the school emphasize certain academic subject areas over others?
Choose the colleges that are best aligned with your career interests. If you have in mind a very general area of professional interest, like engineering or medicine, then you might focus on the best colleges in those areas, like MIT and Johns Hopkins respectively. However if you already have a specific career in mind, then you’re better off attending the schools that are most specialized in that sub-field. For example, if you’re intent on pursuing a career in nuclear engineering, then you should choose the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor because it’s actually #1 in undergraduate nuclear engineering. If you really don’t have much of a clue about what you want to do, which is pretty normal, then a strong liberal arts college is ideal for you. In summary, you should pick the colleges that are best for your career interests.
Every college has its own unique culture. This is a lot like the “personality” of the college. Just like making new friends, you’ll want your college’s personality to match you in some way. It doesn’t have to be perfect, few friendships are. But like a good relationship, there has to be enough of a connection to carry you through those rough spots. Some colleges are extremely competitive and others are more laid back. Some are deeply steeped in athletics and some don’t even have sports programs. Some have a strong sense of school spirit and others not as much. Do you want to have a lot of social options like you could have at a college in a big city, or are you ok with fewer social options but among a tighter knit and smaller college community?
So now that you have an overview of how to approach thinking about college, here is a process for building your college list and figuring out exactly which colleges you’ll apply to.
Since the factors that affect all three types of Fit are all about your preferences and personality, we think that a great starting place is to get all of those ideas and preferences down on paper. Each section is loaded with questions but don’t just read through them. Go back and actually answer them! In addition to answering those questions, think through the topics more broadly. What kind of environment do you learn the best in? What kind of type of social environment makes you feel the most motivated and connected?
Make three lists of preferences — one for each type of Fit. For maximum clarity and specificity, we recommend that you use vs. statements. E.g. Small college vs. Big college because it gives clarity about what you want but also what you don’t want.
Go through all of these preferences and prioritize them. Some of these are definitely more important to you than others, so it’s important to account for that by prioritizing. Your list will actually be difficult (and exhausting) to use if you don’t prioritize anything.
After prioritizing, what you’re left with is a really great list of filters that you can now use on all future colleges that cross your path. Instead of running after each and every one of them, now you can screen them through this filter and see if they’re actually worth pursuing.