Choosing which colleges to attend is a big decision. Teens (and their parents) may think that the best approach is to focus their college search on the highest ranked institutions that they think they can get into based on their grades and resume. But this approach can be misguided.
“Prestige is not a synonym for fit,” says Christine K. VanDeVelde, coauthor of the book College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step. “Parents and students need to get out of the mindset that prestige and selectivity are the most important criteria for choosing a college. Instead the focus should be on finding a school that is a good fit academically as well as socially.”
Why have college rankings become so important?
Many parents have become overly concerned with their child getting into a high ranked college. Maria Furtado, Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives, explains, “Most parents are coming from a good place. They love their kids and want what is best for them. American culture places high value on the brand, no matter what the product or service. Parents may believe that the ‘best name-brand’ college will create the smoothest post-college path for their child.”
It is not just parents that may get fixated on a school’s ranking. After working so hard in high school on academically and on extracurricular activities, teens may feel validated by getting into and attending a big name school.
Why look beyond rankings?
Just because a student gets into a big name school does not mean they will fit in there and be happy. VanDeVelde asserts, “There is a saying in college admissions, ‘It is not where you go but what you do when you get there.’ A person does not have to attend an elite college to be successful in life. Many individuals who have achieved great things did not attend an Ivy League school. ”
Looking for fit over name requires a bit of a leap of faith on the part of students and parents. Parents and teens must be willing to keep an open mind and do a lot of research. Furtado says, “If parents and students ask questions about outcomes, opportunities for students, and alumni success, they will usually be surprised by all the success stories coming out of a smaller, lesser known schools.”
How to find a school that’s a good fit
Furtado says, “First and foremost, students need to identify honestly what type of social life seems like the best fit.”
Campus tours and information sessions are a great starting point but not enough to get an accurate feel for a school. Says VanDeVelde, “It is important for teens to keep an open mind but also trust their instincts. If a school doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. But they shouldn’t let one bad tour guide cloud their view on a school. Instead, they need to investigate beyond the tour to determine whether a school seems like a good fit.”
Current students can provide prospective students with a wealth of information on what really happens on campus. For example, if a student loves the idea of a ‘rah-rah’ big sports school they should look at schools that have strong athletic programs. Then ask current students about the programs. Furtado advises, “Colleges reps will typically be upfront and say ‘yes, there are athletics and people are totally invested’ or, ‘yes, it's there and people go if their friends play but no one has ever painted themselves the school colors.”
Wander around campus and pay attention to the surroundings. One of the best ways for teens to determine if a school is right for them is to watch the current students on campus and ask themselves, “Can I see myself here?”
Find a list of list of clubs available on campus. Read through the campus calendar online and/or check out the campus bulletin board at school. If a student sees several events or clubs they would be interested in, the campus may be a good match for them. Things like whether a campus is liberal or conservative, has an active Greek life or strong spiritual life can all factors to consider.
Why is college fit is so important?
While being academically challenged is an important part of the college experience, so is being socially connected. Furtado says, “The best learning takes place where a student feels most comfortable. Having a social group that supports you makes the transition to college easier and helps create an atmosphere where you can learn well. If you have no release valve to allow you to rest and relax, as well as people to talk over ideas and problems, the college experience can feel isolating.”
Adds VanDeVelde, “There is nothing worse than a kid that is miles away and unhappy in school. Parents and teens need to be willing to do the work to find out whether a school is a good fit.”