If the School Fits...

A College Counselor Recommends Five Factors to Consider

By: Heather Jeter
Director of College Counseling

A “good fit”—in a sense, we all know what it feels like. When shoes are a good fit, you know it immediately; they often elicit an “Ahhh” in the middle of the shoe store. One of my friends, an avid distance runner, buys three identical pairs of running shoes every time she finds a style that fits perfectly. Her habit is a testament to the fact that finding a good fit—even in something as mundane as shoes—is often not an easy task. Therefore, when we encourage our students to find a college that “fits” them, a challenge far weightier than shoe shopping, we are giving them a substantial charge.

What does “fit” mean in college admission? It doesn’t simply mean that the college or university is ranked highly on a U.S. News & World Report list. To find the right fit, we must look beyond rankings; they don’t tell the full story. Countless books and articles have been written on the topic of fit, but to establish each student’s unique definition of fit, I begin by asking my counselees to consider five essential factors: size, setting, distance, social/academic culture, and affordability. By determining their preferences for each of these factors, students accomplish an important objective: establishing the type of school that fits them. I reject the notion that there is only one sterling school where each student can achieve superior happiness. Rather, I believe there is a type of school that fits each student; once a student establishes that type, we collaborate to create a list of schools to consider (and, ultimately, to apply to) that fit the type.

Regarding the first factor of fit, most students have no concept of colleges’ relative sizes until they visit examples of small, medium, and large schools. At Steward, we take juniors on a two-day, whirlwind tour of six colleges and universities of varying sizes. By seeing these schools in quick succession, students’ preconceptions are either affirmed or dismantled; it is quite typical for a student to declare mid-trip, “I thought I wanted one size, but now that I’ve seen my options, I know I want the opposite.” On this trip, we also tackle the second factor of fit, setting, by introducing students to urban, suburban, and rural campuses. By seeing these examples, most students realize quickly which setting is the best fit for them.

To tackle distance, the third factor of fit, I begin by asking each student to answer a seemingly simple question: how far away do you want to be: a drive or a plane ride away? Being a drive away from home, whether two hours or eight, means going home on three-day weekends or enjoying a delivery of mom’s chicken soup to treat a winter cold. Being a plane ride away means going home for major holidays and little chance of parent “pop-bys.” Students’ reactions to these scenarios are telling. Some students don’t flinch at the notion of being a flight away from home, while others realize their dreams of studying in Hawaii may be better suited for graduate school. Either way, establishing the student’s geographic perimeter is an essential step toward finding the right fit.

The next factor, social/academic setting, is the most nuanced and critical component. In order for this factor to be satisfied, a college must fulfill both aspects. If a school is a good social fit but not a good academic fit, a student’s college experience may be woefully brief; conversely, if the school is not a good social fit but fits academically, the student will be unsatisfied outside of the classroom. What constitutes social fit? This is a highly personal matter and largely unquantifiable. I ask my students to “trust their gut” when they visit college campuses. Does the school feel right to them? Can they see themselves walking with the groups of people passing by? In the dining halls and along campus pathways, do people interact in ways that seem familiar and comfortable? On campus bulletin boards and electronic information boards, are events and activities being advertised that look interesting? Beyond these impressions, students should consider social factors such as how they feel about Greek life, whether or not they want to live on campus for the majority of their undergraduate experience, what clubs and organizations are available to them, and what school-sponsored programming is available on the weekends.

When evaluating academic fit, students need to begin by determining how their abilities compare to the academic rigor of the school. Will they struggle to keep pace, or will they achieve success with hard work and determination? Academically competitive students need to decide whether they thrive in an environment replete with other über-scholars or if they prefer to be a member of their college’s elite academic tier. Students who value close interactions with faculty may find such relationships difficult to establish at a school where class sizes average several hundred students; would that student fare better at a smaller college with readier access to professors? Does a student need the extrinsic accountability of having roll taken at the beginning of each class, or is their alarm sufficient motivation? If a specialized major (i.e. engineering, nursing, or architecture) is the student’s goal, is the program direct-admission or determined by the first year or two of college performance? The academic arena is the most challenging aspect of fit for many students to evaluate, and I spend a great deal of time discussing it with my counselees.

The final factor of fit is affordability. Every family’s approach to affordability is personal, and I always encourage parents to have an open conversation with their student at the beginning of the search process. Choosing a college or university is a great lesson for our students: dream big but be realistic. If there are financial parameters in place, students should conduct their search with those in mind. For example, if a family has saved using the Virginia529 College Savings Plan, they are likely to advise their child to keep their search local. Or, if a student is likely to receive merit aid, that may open doors at the many private colleges and universities that offer significant merit scholarships.

Finding the right fit in college admission is a process, and at Steward we walk with students on this journey from beginning to end. Ultimately, my hope for each student is that they experience the “Ahhh” of a great-fit school. I’m here to help them “try on” schools until they find the perfect fit.

Heather Jeter is the Director of College Counseling at The Steward School. She holds a B.A. in English from Bridgewater College and a master’s degree in English Literature from James Madison University. Over the course of her college counseling career, she has proofread approximately 7,500 applications and 14,000 application essays.




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