How to Determine If a College is the Right Fit For You

Springtime is just around the corner and for high-school seniors and their parents, it can be a highly stressful time.

As college offers and student aid reports roll in, decisions must be made that will impact students’ lives forever.

I recently chatted with Davin Sweeney, an admissions counselor at University of Rochester and host of The Crush podcast, about this exact topic.

He talks with brilliant people across the college admissions world on a daily basis, and I knew he’d have a ton to say about choosing the “right” college.

Here’s what he shared in our chat…

What are some of the first things students should consider when ranking their colleges of choice?

Sorry to break it to you, but…there isn’t one perfect college out there for you. BUT that’s good news! Mark Moody, co-director of college counseling at Colorado Academy, said it best: MANY colleges are right for you. There’s no reason given the sheer tonnage of schools out there that every student can’t have a list that’s a 10-way tie for “dream school.”

But unlike spouses, children, careers, cars, & houses, we can only have one alma mater. So the list inevitably falls into rank order behind your crush… though I’m here to try to discourage emotional infatuation. Just because a school is higher ranked by news outlets doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for YOU.

You do have to narrow the list of thousands down to a reasonable number (10 = reasonable!). So I suggest starting with weather/geography…e.g. I am from Portland, OR: “Hot” in the zeitgeist, rainy & cold in reality. I wanted different, so I looked to the University of Southern California.

Are you willing to travel great distances? In fact, define for yourself what a “great distance” is. People tell me the University of Rochester is “too far” when in reality, it is closer to them in that moment than almost every other place on earth! Distance is highly subjective.

How can visiting a college campus help a student determine if it would be a good fit?

First off, listen to Episode 06 of The Crush with Nader Tehrani, former head of the architecture department at MIT and current Dean of the School of Architecture at Cooper Union, to learn a lot about why colleges look & feel the way they do. The feeling you get when you visit is largely the result of purposeful efforts by the college!

You’re going to live there for 4 years, go kick the tires. Above all, meet the people. Students, teachers, librarians: this might be your tribe. Confirm the narrative the school is selling you, with a mindfulness that you are very much being sold-to.

Also? Brochures and websites can mislead. E.g. pick up a brochure, count the number of non-white faces in it. Now, look to see what the school’s % of non-white students is. How’s it line up? Visiting can help you see more of the truth of an experience.

NOTE: Visits costs time and money! Colleges can’t justly “penalizing” kids for not visiting, because families have unequal amounts of time and money. So it’s totally okay to wait until after you’re admitted to go to the one(s) you’re most serious about. If you go, definitely stay overnight.

What are some specific questions students should be asking on the campus visits?

Time with professors is highly-coveted. Don’t ask what the student-to-teacher ratio is (they’ll prob tell you anyways). Ask random students when they last met with a professor. If lots report recent interactions, that’s better real-world info than a ratio can give.

Also, controversial/hardball questions are fair game. E.g. How did the campus/admin respond to the #BLM movement? Did policies change & how after Title IX and #MeToo concerns increased in higher ed? How will I be supported here as a student with conservative values?

Definitely pick up the student newspaper because it usually has the juicy products of intrepid student journalists in it that won’t be volunteered at the info session

How can a student know if the academic environment is a match for them?

Definitely look at what must you take in addition to your major. i.e. “core” “general ed” or ”distribution” requirements. Is the proportion of those courses over 4 yrs acceptable against the number you get to choose?

The curriculum of an undergrad program can also help undecided students decide (and “decides” change minds). The shape of this curriculum, combined with advising, can make a big impact on your experience, and can make big schools feel small/er if it’s done right.

Like to go above and beyond? Consider opportunities for undergraduate research and learn how common it is at schools on your list. Spend time on faculty pages and their research in particular. This is what gets them up in the morning, could it be what gets you up too?

Should financial aid be the deciding factor in choosing a school?

No it should not, but we don’t live in that world. Have you heard of “Net Price Calculators?” Because you need to.

Every college that gets federal support must have an NPC. Parents (not kids) plug some tax data into the NPC & receive a conservative need-based estimate of aid from the college. Families today have more tools than ever to help plan financially. Use them!

Parents probably need to have some real talk with their kids about affordability. As discussed in Episode 20 of The Crush with Akil Bello, a friend of mine who is also one of these odd sorts who concerns himself in life with all things standardized tests, this process might be the first time kids learn their socioeconomic status. This is a Big. Deal. – and should be talked through with facts known, carefully and lovingly.

(I may be pilloried for this by colleagues, but) Don’t assume 100% of the time the 1st offer is the school’s BEST offer. We want to make it work for you. Keep lines of communication open with colleges before AND after receiving the formal offer of financial aid.

When choosing a college, should a student consider post-grad life and what they’re looking for? Does that matter at this stage?

The Crush Episode 18 guest Doug Webber, a labor economist at Temple University who has contributed to fivethirtyeight.com, Fortune, and has testified before congress on matters of higher education, and Episode 07 guest Ben Casselman, Econ/business/data reporter for The New York Times and Adjunct at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, have lots to say on this. Lifetime earnings-wise it matters more WHAT you study than WHERE. That said, schools tout their alumni network as a value of the experience.

In addition, every college has a career center, but you’ve got to use it. Think of how colleges can help YOU get internships and jobs, rather than the college GETTING you those internships and jobs. Self-advocacy: it’s totally everything!

…But remember to take it one step at a time, enjoy your youth now (sounds so corny, I know). Too often people think of college as a means to an end. Don’t forget you have to enjoy the 4 years you’re there before you can enjoy the life it catapults you into.

Should campus setting – rural, suburban, or urban – be a factor is choosing where to go?

I don’t know if it “should,” per se, but it will, no matter what. It comes down to feelings here and you’ll only know when you feel it for yourself.

Cities are complex, energetic, diverse, distracting. Small college towns are adorable, historic, safe, limited. Cities bring you closer to humans, boonies bring you to nature. One isn’t better than any other, either way different than what you’re used to = better.

Is there something to be said for a gut feeling – aka choosing the college that “feels” right?

Totally BUT consider that these feels might be the product of purposeful design via campus aesthetics, curated tour and info session, and the “prestige” you/society ascribes to the school, which is a highly-engineered social construct.

Frame the feels in terms of “safe discomfort.” You won’t grow as much as you can if you go to a college that is too familiar to your high school community. Seek out schools with the greatest amount of difference (racial, economic, location, etc) you can abide.

The US is dealing with a crisis of empathy. This is gained by getting to know different kinds of people and putting personalities with experiences. College is often the most diverse community in which one will ever live in this country. Value difference highly!

So if you feel a little awkward on a campus, good. Normal. Healthy. If you feel really uncomfortable, probably not good.

What is your advice to students and parents who may not agree why a college should make the final list?

Parents: remember whose list it is, whose experience it is, whose life it is. Students: Remember whose money it is, whose vicarious experiential manifestation this is, whose annoying pestering is coming from nothing but love for you. Both have a role! But…

…this is the *student’s* life to live in the end, this is the place they must feel happy, safe, a sense of belonging…perhaps all the way to self-actualized!

If you’re lucky enough to have one with time and a reasonable caseload, turn to your heroic school counselor to help break deadlocks. They’ve seen it all, know people in the admissions offices, and can help manage expectations on both sides. THANK THEM OFTEN!

Parents: Avoid using money as power over your student’s listmaking. Having realistic affordability convos is obviously important and HIGHLY personal, so get real clear on net price feasibility ASAP. But it’s painful to hear “I won’t pay for that” versus “I can’t.”

What’s one last tip you’d give students to help decide a college is right for them?

I have a few here from Mark Moody’s canonical, aforementioned article “Don Quixote, College Choice, and the Myth of Fit:” A “good fit” college should come off the rack a little baggy and unflattering, with time a student grows into it.

Tailor it too soon and you’re stuck with a style that might come to embarrass you, the way those high school graduation portraits tend to do after a while. Consider that.   

Finally, take a moment – or many, regularly – to reflect on how fortunate you are to even have this choice. It is EXCEEDINGLY RARE in the global/historical human experience, try to recognize and appreciate that.

Also don’t follow your boy/girlfriend to college.

You can subscribe to The Crush podcast here and learn more about Davin here.

Join the conversation every Thursday for the #CollegeCash Twitter chat at 5 pm PT/8 pm ET.