Has your school counselor ever told you that it’s important to find a “good fit” when you’re selecting your college? And have you ever wondered what that term even means?
When educators talk about the best college fit, they are talking about finding a school that is compatible with your personality and lifestyle, a school that feels comfortable and feels like “you.”
Why Is a Good Fit Important When Choosing a College?
Before we get into what a good fit might look like, let’s talk about why finding a good college fit is so important. We would argue that a good fit is one of the most crucial aspects to consider when you are narrowing down your choices of college. A good fit is important because it affects your entire college experience: how much fun you’ll have, how you’ll feel while you’re there, and how successful you will be.
Don’t believe us? Then take the word of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. They reported that college students consider mental health to be the most important problem on campus. And they feel mental health is at stake due to the pressure of academics, the stress of friendship issues, and cutthroat social environments. Note that all of these stressors relate to whether or not a college is a good fit for you.
Unfortunately, a lot of students make quick decisions when it comes to college. They might focus on one aspect alone, then determine after a few months as a college student that there was a lot more they should have considered.
Here’s what we mean. Let’s say Student 1 chooses a school that is easy to get into and that has a fun, party atmosphere. But then she discovers she wants much more from school, including an atmosphere that feels like how she grew up. She wants friends who are more like her, maybe southern, or more conservative, or more academically focused.
Student 2 has the opposite problem. After attending a big high school, he chooses a small school for more individualized attention. Instead, that environment feels too small with not enough to do. He discovers he needs more options, more activities, more diversity in the people around him.
In both cases, the student concentrated on one or two aspects without really considering the whole picture. That frequently leads to surprises, disappointments, and maybe even the decision to transfer schools. And while you can always do that, most students prefer to get it right from the get-go, then enjoy the four years of college ahead of them.
So how do you increase your chances of finding the perfect school? For starters, you take the decision seriously, and you consider all the variables in your decision.
How Do I Know What College Is Right For Me?
We’ve broken down a list of everything you might consider, and we encourage you to take all of these into account. The more research and thought you put in upfront, the better chance you’ll have of finding the college that is the best fit for you.
#1: What Does the School Offer for Academics?
The main reason you go to college is for the education you receive there. But how can you determine what you'll be learning before you’ve stepped foot in a class?
Consider the following: Will the courses offered provide strong preparation for your career or graduate program of interest? Would you like to apply for the Honors Program, and how will the program help you achieve your goals? Does the school specialize in or have a particular strength in your area of study? Are the professors reputable and will they be teaching your classes, or does the school rely heavily on graduate students or teaching assistants (TA’s) to teach classes?
#2: What Extracurricular Opportunities Will Keep You Busy?
Arts, sports, clubs, and activities are all opportunities for you to find your niche. These activities are where you'll connect with friends who have the same interests as you and spend your time when you’re not in class.
School sponsored groups are usually listed on the website, where you can also get a feel for what is most popular at each school. If you have the opportunity to visit the school, take note of all the leaflets and signs around campus – these are usually activities sponsored by independent groups. They can include anything from a book club to an environmental group.
#3: How Big Is the School?
The size of a school can play a huge role in your enjoyment of it. Ask yourself if you’d like to know everyone or if you’d rather get lost in a crowd.
Size can also encourage or inhibit your chances to get involved. For instance, if you’d like to play a sport, increased competition at a large university might limit your chances, but a smaller school may have a spot for you. On the other hand, a small school may have limited resources or less to choose from. Academically, consider if you’re okay with large lecture halls filled with hundreds of students, or if you prefer small classes with a lot of personal attention.
#4: What Are the School’s Demographics?
Diversity, gender parity, the mindset of the students – all of these contribute to the overall feel of a school. Are you an international student who wants to meet other international students? Do you want to be with students from all over the U.S. or do you prefer to get to know kids from your local area? Are you only considering coed schools with an equal distribution of genders, or do you like the idea of a single-gender school?
#5: What Is the Reputation of the School?
Some schools have a well-known reputation and have even earned labels, from “party school” to “suitcase school,” and everything in between. Just like personal reputations, some are unfair and some are spot on, so you owe it to yourself to do your research into what a school really has to offer. Some students are heavily invested in a school’s reputation – it’s important to them, for instance, to have graduated from Harvard.
If you are considering reputation, ask yourself the important questions: How is the school viewed in the academic and business worlds? Will the school’s reputation play a part in helping you secure a job after graduation? Will it help you get into grad school?
#6: What Is the School’s Success Rate?
When we refer to a university success rate, we mean the percentage of students who graduate (versus transferring out or dropping out), the percentage of students who find jobs in their fields after graduation, and the number who are accepted to graduate school or who pass an exam such as the LSAT for law school entry or the MCAT for medical school. No matter what school you are considering, a school’s success rate should be one of your top priorities. After all, no matter how many amenities a school might offer, if it doesn’t graduate most of its students, you might want to question why.
#7: Where Is the School Located?
Location may not seem like an important factor in choosing a school, but it can make a big difference in your experience. A school's lcation will affect how often you can go home and how much it will cost to do so, for starters. But it also determines the atmosphere for your experience, whether your school is in the middle of New York City or the middle of corn fields.
Location also impacts what options you have for extracurriculars and career exploration. Do you want to ski or do you want to surf? Are you interested in interning at a farm or a museum? Do you want to explore a new state, city, or town, or would you feel more comfortable sticking close to home?
#8: How Do Your Qualifications Stack Up?
Some students like to be at the top of their class without trying too hard; others thrive on difficulty and rely on competing with others to motivate themselves. Think about where your qualifications will put you in comparison to the rest of the student body. You can find this information on the school website, which will list the average GPA, class rank, and SAT scores for the typical freshmen class.
We recommend that you apply to stretch schools and safety schools to cover all your bases, but to also reflect on what type of student you are. Do you want to work extra hard or are you more interested in the overall experience?
9. How Important Are Athletics to You?
How much do sports matter to you, either as an athlete or as an observer? Do you love the idea of filled football stands and tailgating? Do you have a favorite sport you want to participate in? There's a huge range of ways to get involved in college sports, from cheering on the Division 1 football team to joining the intramural bowling league, and your options will vary hugely depending on the school you choose.
If you're an athlete hoping to compete at the college level, a school's athletic program will obviously be important to you. Many student athletes choose schools based solely on recruitments and scholarship opportunities. But if you have multiple offers, be sure to consider the other factors on this list.
#10: Will You Have Access to Resources You Need?
Increasingly, schools are becoming more diverse and more sensitive to the unique needs of various groups. Many schools offer organizations for LBGTQ+ students, for instance. You may want to be involved in a cultural group, a gender-focused group, or even a group that aligns those attributes with certain fields, such as a Women in Science group.
If you have special learning needs, you will want to check out the resources available to those students. The same applies for students who need accommodations of other kinds. And be sure to do your research on mental health services at any school you’re considering – it's important to know what your options are if you find yourself struggling.
#11: How Will the School’s Philosophy Affect You?
Don’t overlook this important question! At some schools, religious affiliation forms the basis for what is allowed and what is expected. At others, religion may never be mentioned. Some schools are distinctly conservative while others are liberal.
Beyond politics and religion, an academic philosophy is always part of a school’s mission. Some take a liberal arts approach to education; others delve straight into your area of study; still others insist on a core curriculum of mandatory classes.
#12: Can You Afford the School?
Before setting your heart on a specific school, determine what kinds of resources are available to you financially. Does the school provide generous need-based aid? What about merit scholarships? Do you qualify for either? If not, are you willing to take on debt to attend that school?
An other consideration is the availability of jobs, both on and off campus. Are you eligible for work-study and if so what kinds of positions does the school offer? If not, are there other options on campus or nearby? Do you have skills or experience (like waiting tables) that will be more useful in some places than others?
#13: Does the Social Atmosphere Match Your Personality?
Although your interests and even your personality will likely evolve during your time in college, start with what feels right now. If you are an extrovert, you might be interested in a fraternity or sorority. If you’re an athlete, you may opt for a sports-heavy school. If you're bookish, you can look for a place where you can have quiet and solitude.
A school's atmosphere is typically best determined through a visit to the school, where you can soak in the atmosphere in person. But if that's not an option for you (college visits can be expensive and difficult to plan!), consider a virtual visit or talking to current students about their experiences.
#14: Do the Housing Options Meet Your Needs?
Housing options can vary widely from school to school. Some have a policy that at the very least, you must live in a dorm your freshmen year. Some require dorm living a full four years. Some offer single housing, some insist on two or more per room, and some are comprised almost entirely of off-campus apartment living.
Do you want to have a roommate? Do you want to be able to walk to classes? Can you afford an apartment? Have you always dreamed of being in Greek housing? You will spend a lot of time in your room, so it’s important that you feel comfortable with your living arrangements.
Recap: What Is College Fit?
As you can see, there is much to consider when you are looking for your best fit for college. You know yourself better than anyone, so think about where you stand on each of these factors, consider the factors most important to you, and research the schools you are considering.
Want to build the best possible college application?
We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.
We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.
Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Rebecca has a doctorate in Educational Leadership and taught high school English for over 20 years. Her students consistently earned top scores on the SAT and ACT, AP Language and AP Literature exams. She worked one-on-one with students through her own tutoring and educational coaching business and believes that individualized attention and personal connection are the keys to success. Rebecca is the author of the parenting book Teenagers 101: What a Top Teacher Wishes You Knew About Helping Your Kids Succeed, which provides tips for parents on how to help their kids reach their full potential. As a content writer for Prep Scholar, she hopes to help guide students and parents through high school and make the transition into adulthood as stress-free – and informed – as possible.