Starting The College Search Process: Choosing The Right University for You

Advice on Defining Your Best Fit and Building Your College List from College Admissions Experts

There is an important and often overlooked difference between a school that is well-ranked and has a good reputation and a school that is a good “fit” for your academic, social, and professional needs. You may or may not find your “fit” in schools ranking at or near the top of college rankings released by the U.S. News Rankings. While prestige and quality of resources available are important, the most important thing is that you attend a school where you feel you belong and are able to thrive in all dimensions of your life there.

Why is College Fit Important? 

Perhaps the most important part of the college application process is building your college list intentionally. For each school on your list, you should have at least a handful of specific reasons why you’ve added it to your list that makes it a good fit for you. Never apply to a college or university just because you’ve heard the name a lot and know that it is a “good” school. Building your college list intentionally involves considering how well a school meets a variety of factors you’ve identified as important for your academic, social, and professional growth. Factors such as campus culture, location, and availability of particular types of clubs and extracurriculars are important to consider insofar as they may ultimately contribute to whether or not you feel happy and successful in your learning environment.

Applying to schools that are a good fit for you to boost your chances of admission. Admission officers and interviewers want to see that you value specific characteristics that make their institution unique. It is clear to those reading your supplemental essays, interviewing you, and/or scanning your resume when you have done your research and have a clear idea of how you would fit into their campus. To read more about potential college application requirements, see our blog post here. The more your passion for the school comes through and the clearer your goals once you’re on campus, the stronger your application.

Components of Determining College Fit

When beginning your college search process and building a rough draft of your college list, it is important that you first brainstorm what you’re looking for in your ideal college. List the factors that are important to you and use them to guide your research process as you determine where to apply. You might consider talking to people who know you best as you brainstorm. Often, family and friends can help us learn more about ourselves and what makes us happy. As you search, do not limit yourself too much. Few schools, if any, will likely meet all of your criteria. Rather, this approach is simply intended to help you apply more strategically and intentionally to increase your chances of acceptance to schools that you are genuinely interested in attending.

There are many factors you could consider to determine what constitutes a good fit for you. To get you started, you might consider factors that fall into one of the following five buckets of consideration:

Academic programs and opportunities. When selecting which colleges and universities to apply to, it is important to research what resources would be available to you at that school as you pursue your intellectual interests. This includes not only what majors/minors are offered, but learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom. Are there small discussion seminars where you can explore new and interesting ideas in-depth? If you thrive in seminar environments, a large school with an average class size of 40 would not be a good fit for you. Is there a unique liberal arts curriculum that all students take that focuses on developing skills across a number of disciplines? Or is it a school, such as Brown University, that exempts students from having to take any core general education requirements as part of their philosophy of intellectual exploration?

You may want to see if there are any research opportunities for undergraduates or if there are any unique partnerships with the surrounding community that you could pursue as an intern. You should also consider whether or not the school you’re applying to is a research university. Research universities tend to devote a lot of their resources to graduate students, while other schools pride themselves on providing undergraduates with a strong advising structure and ample opportunities for academic exploration outside of the classroom.

Campus culture. “Campus culture” is a broad term to denote any values––political, social, and/or religious––that tend to hold true for one’s experience at a specific college or university.

  • Political: Some schools are notoriously liberal (e.g., Brown University, Reed College), while others are notoriously conservative (e.g., Brigham Young University, Washington & Lee). If you feel more connected to liberal ideologies, it could be the case that you would feel disconnected from your peers at more conservative universities. If you are an activist passionate about social justice issues, you might find that campuses with a history of activism and conversations around social justice are a great fit for you.

  • Religious: Just like yourself, schools have different morals and values and they also want to be sure that the students they admit to sharing these values. For example, there are many colleges in the United States that focus a lot on religion and their religious expression is a huge part of the campus culture. Some of these schools include the previously mentioned Brigham Young University, University of Tulsa, and Davidson College. If you are do not share these specific values, it could be that you ultimately feel out of place on campus.

  • Social: At some schools, sports structure a majority of social life. This is not to say that a school culture that emphasizes sports does not also offer alternatives. But, you should be aware of trends in how a majority of a student body spends their time. Other schools embrace the energetic motto of “Work hard, play hard.” These schools may have a more intensive party atmosphere than schools that place an emphasis on constant academic improvement and exploration all the time. Additionally, you might research what sort of extracurriculars/clubs you’d be interested in joining at each school on your list. Can you envision you having plenty to do to occupy your time there?

Location. A school’s location determines much of the social, academic, and professional activities you participate in on an average day. If you are someone who likes big crowds and large-scale events, you may not be happy at a small liberal arts college in a rural town. If you value relaxing in a more wooded and natural environment, it could be that you would be unhappy at a school such as New York University that is at the heart of one of the busiest cities in the United States. The larger the city your college is located in or near the more opportunities you have to pursue professional and volunteer opportunities during the academic year. Alternatively, if you attend a small liberal arts college is ain a smaller city or town, you have few distractions to keep you from delving deep into your studies. If you are interested in environmental science and conservation, you may want to look at schools near natural areas of import where you could do hands-on research.

Financial aid. When comparing the price at the face-value of attending a state school in your state versus a private college or university in another state, the price tags are quite different. However, financial aid looks quite different across not only public and private schools but on a school-by-school basis. Do not limit what schools you can afford to attend too soon. Some schools are known for giving great financial aid based on merit and/or financial need. If affordability is a significant factor for you when deciding where you ultimately attend college, research schools that offer students like you good aid. It could certainly be the case that it is cheaper for you to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. than that state school two hours away from your home. To get a quick estimate, use the financial aid calculator on each school’s website. And, to begin structuring your college budget, check out our guide to college financial planning.

Professional and career development support, resources, and opportunities. Different colleges and universities offer varying levels of support for students as they prepare for either entering the workforce after school or further academic engagement. You might research what resources are available to you at each school as you pursue internships during your undergraduate career and apply for jobs in your senior year. Is there a career resource center? Is there a good advising structure and/or panel events to help inform what you’re interested in pursuing after college? If you are looking to continue going to school after undergrad, are there good resources to assist you in applying to grad schools or professional programs? A quick and easy way to gauge this is to look at any statistics released on what a school’s students tend to do after graduation.

As you now know, there are various factors you may consider as you search for the schools that are a good fit for you. Doing your research at the beginning will not only help you prepare ahead of time for interviews and answering college application essay prompts but will increase your chances of receiving college acceptance letters and ensure that you end up satisfied wherever you attend. For guidance on how to structure your senior year and successfully follow the college application timeline, check out this post.

Anna Lenaker

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At Prepory, we recognize there is more to college applications than demonstrating interest. Contact us now to learn more about how we can guide you through each part of the college admissions process!