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Personal Approaches to Finding a Good College Fit

Mary Reed Hall at the University of Denver, November 2009.
Image by Satpalkhalsa at Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY 3.0.

As we near the end of a tumultuous year, the high school Class of 2021 is getting ready to choose where they want to go to college. In some cases, students have already heard from their top choices, and are now reviewing and narrowing their options. Coming up with a college list is such a personal process, and deciding between more than one acceptance can be challenging because it requires careful consideration of what you value most and how you hope your college experience will shape you. For this blog post, I’ve spoken with three current college students about how they ultimately found their ideal college fit.

Find a college that aligns with your goals

“I think the biggest thing is to look for what’s the motto you want to live by in your future. Then look at the schools and see what they preach, what they practice,” says Jack, a junior and a real estate major at the University of Denver (DU).

After doing more research on the colleges to which he was accepted, he found that DU’s campus culture has a strong focus on leadership. “They have leadership classes, leadership clubs—it’s all around you; you can’t miss out. They’re super lenient about students creating clubs, so you can get leadership experience from that. At a lot of bigger schools, they preach more about teamwork.” Jack also mentioned that, as a senior in high school, he was looking for a more “hands-on” university. He appreciated the opportunities DU provided to be involved in numerous clubs and programs at the undergrad level.

Maya, a junior at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, discovered that, out of everywhere she got in, she appreciated her final college choice for its small size. “I'm really surprised how quickly I became comfortable at Lawrence. I was nervous that it would feel claustrophobic because of how small it is, but it being a small liberal arts college allowed me to find my groove really quickly and easily and I'm very grateful for that.”

East view of the Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community, University of Utah, 2012.
Image by Trina Knudsen. CC-BY-SA 4.0
East view of the Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community, University of Utah, 2012. Image by Trina Knudsen. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Maya also received a scholarship that was a big factor in her ultimate college decision. “[It] made me feel like they really wanted me there,” she explained.

For current college applicants, Jack advises that students choose a college based on what they themselves want in a college, regardless of pressure from parents or peers. This advice is common but it’s important to consider; many students decide where to go to college by simply choosing the most traditionally prestigious school to which they got in.

“I think you should go to the school that caters to you. Don’t go to a liberal arts school if you want to study business, or don’t go to a business school if you want to study liberal arts. A lot of people overlook that stuff” and experience disappointment after high school when they choose a college that isn't well-suited to their interests or goals.

Think about school size

Jack and Maya both chose to attend small-to-mid-sized colleges. There are numerous benefits associated with smaller, more personal college communities, including greater attention on undergraduates and more opportunities for student involvement and leadership.

On the other hand, Meg—a student at the University of Utah—has had a wonderful experience at her large university of 24,000 undergrads. She chose Utah primarily for its game design program and its relatively short distance from her family in California. Many students like Meg value large universities because they offer a wide variety of courses and programs, as well as numerous research or housing facilities and well-funded sports programs.

“There is this stereotype that college has to be this super-intense, super-stressful time where you work towards jam-packing your résumé,” she said. “But… I think there is plenty of room to enjoy yourself, take care of your mental health, learn a lot, and fill your résumé along the way. I wish more people weren’t afraid to choose based on fit rather than prestige.”

Meg added that students choosing between multiple colleges should pay attention to how stressed out current students seem. This may be easier to gauge on a campus visit, but she advises that it should be an “immediate turn-off” if the atmosphere seems “hyper-competitive” or if students “[look] exhausted and unhappy.”

Ask friends and family for ideas

Both Maya and Jack first learned about the colleges they attend through their mothers, who are alumnae. Maya said, “At the time it just seemed like a no-brainer to at least apply. Otherwise, I probably would have never heard of it.”

Jack added, “Not many schools have a real estate program, so it was really cool to go and see their teaching style and all that.”

Presidents Circle on the campus of the University of Utah. Image by MrSchmidt at Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 4.0.

During his college search, Jack mainly learned about college options from his friends and their older siblings. He also found out about colleges from the dozens of college marketing emails that students receive who sign up for the SAT Student Search Service. “I got a bunch of emails from a bunch of schools, and I know a lot of students are like, ‘don’t listen to those.’ I actually think they’re good to listen to because I would not have considered a lot of the schools that I applied to without them.”

Meg applied to many of the same colleges that her brother had applied to a few years earlier. “[My brother and mom] both had a pretty good idea of what sort of fit I was looking for, but I also spent a lot of time online researching the best game design programs in the country,” she said. Distance from her family was also an important factor in her decision. “I knew from the start that I did not want to be more than about an hour and a half’s flight from home, however, so that helped me narrow down my options.”

For students just beginning their college search, talk to teachers, relatives, and family friends about where you’re deciding to apply. Someone might suggest a college that you don’t know about, and often it can turn out to be a great fit.

Finally, Jack mentioned that students should be flexible when it comes to considering colleges out of state. “My big reason for applying out of state was trying to create independence for myself. I wanted to get rid of my safety net altogether, and see how it went, and DU was the perfect place for that.”

This winter, college applicants have several concerns that—like everything else in 2020—are unprecedented. But for students waiting for their college decisions to come rolling in, and those who may have already been accepted, there are so many ways to determine which of their choices is best suited to who they are as a student, even without the option to go and visit. Good luck to all the seniors navigating the college process—it will all work out for the best!

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