College searching: what information matters and why

This summer rising seniors and juniors are actively researching colleges in order to plan trips and identify the schools to which they may want to apply. These are indeed important summer activities, and there is no shortage of resources to use – from college guides like Fiske to online search engines and college websites.

But this flood of resources does not tell students why the information they are gathering, matters.  They read about class size and student to faculty ratios, the number of undergraduates and even graduation rates. But none of this means much unless they also know why all those bits and pieces of information may, or may not, matter to them.  Big school or small, open curriculum or core, college or university, residential or commuter – none of these qualities are necessarily good or bad in the abstract.  Their value derives from whatever a particular young person needs in order to thrive at college.

Here are some of the choices students may consider:

  • Big or small: At larger schools class size usually depends on the level of the course, but at smaller colleges most classes are almost inevitably smaller. To one student class size will make no difference at all to the learning experience; to another, it will mean being deprived of focused attention and mentoring support that he or she needs to do well.  For these students, the presence of an honors college may be important to explore.
  • University or college: While most colleges have no graduate school at all, research universities may have as many graduate students as undergraduates.  For some students, access to the greater research resources of a university (resources necessary to train graduate students), will be very appealing.  But yet another may feel that those graduate students siphon off the university’s attention away from undergraduate teaching.
  • Availability of undergraduate research: Research takes place at all colleges and universities, but students should note how accessible research opportunities are to undergraduates.  In some fields of study, doing research beyond what is required in class may be unusual. But if you are excited by the idea of producing knowledge or simply know that research hones skills and adds to a resume, the availability of such opportunities at schools like Harvey Mudd may be reason to choose one institution over another.
  • Study abroad: High school students often make note of study abroad programs, even though many college students will in fact study overseas with programs administered by a school or organization other than their own.  But even though you can still spend a semester in Spain even if your own school does not offer such a program, your college’s commitment (or indifference) to the value of studying abroad may have an impact on how readily it grants you credit for courses taken elsewhere.
  • Curriculum: Even though college is presumably above all an academic experience, many high school students have no idea how a liberal arts college’s curriculum is structured or why they should care.  These curricula do in fact all try to achieve the same thing: a well-rounded education in which a student is exposed to a broad range of ways of thinking.  But they get students there in different ways, and while one applicant may find the shared intellectual conversation of a core curriculum exciting, another may find it restrictive. Similarly, the same open curriculum that some students find liberating may perplex or intimidate others.
  • Range of majors: High school students often understand a liberal arts education as little more than the chance “to study a lot of different stuff,” and may spend more time checking out the school’s mascot or reading about its traditions than they will spend on the school’s list of majors or the websites of specific departments.  This superficial understanding of a liberal arts education is reinforced by an application that may not ask you about your future major and the knowledge that you may change your mind anyway.  But there is a difference between thinking broadly and being intellectually scattered, and if you are interested in studying Classics, Geophysics or anything else, whether or not you change your mind later, you should make sure your college offers you the chance to explore that field!


These days everyone in college admissions talks about the idea of a good “fit.” But whether one is buying a suit or choosing a college, fit is about individual measurement and taste, and students should examine the information they gather about each school through a lens of self-awareness and personal reflection.


“Finding The Shoe That Fits”: Putting yourself at the centre of your college search

I suspect that if I ask for a show of hands, there will be an unusually large number of parents here who applied to and attended universities in other countries. Coming from those foreign countries of ours, we tend to be particularly struck here in the US by the sheer number of colleges available for our students to attend. After all, there are some 3,500 degree-granting institutions with over 2,000 of them awarding bachelor degrees.

The problem with such an embarrassment of riches, however, is that in the end you can only apply to a handful of them and attend only one. So the question of finding the few that fit best with who you are and who you hope to become at university, is crucial. Parents and students often get side tracked by thinking about “good” schools. With so many amazing institutions to choose from, finding a “good” school is hardly a problem, however, and the term is so vague as to be meaningless.

Like many long-time university counselors, I tend to approach my work with students more from an educational than a practical admissions perspective. And such a viewpoint – one that focuses as much on the experience of a student after they have been admitted as on the application process itself – puts the issue of “fit” at the forefront of the process.

When an admission officer presents an applicant to an admissions committee, however, the question he or she asks is not whether this is a “good” student, since most in a selective pool tend to be pretty good. Instead, you focus on whether a student is a good fit for your institution, or not. Part of that fit is of course whether or not a student has performed in high school the way your institution wishes students to perform, but in a holistic application process the question also goes beyond that. For a technical program, for example, students need to show engineering aptitude, as well as great grades, to be considered a good fit, and in a very selective liberal arts program, students need to back up their strong testing with evidence of a flexible and critical intellect to be considered a good fit. If a student cannot persuade the admission officer of that great fit, the answer is likely no.

The best way to persuade the admission officer of how well you fit with his or her institution is to turn that question of fit around. Stop worrying for the moment what the institution will find a good fit, and ask yourself what fits for you. What kind of place do you need to become the scholar, to have the kind of intellectual experience, and to have the fabulous social life that you wish to have at college?

There are many ways to figure out what fits for you, but like an admission officer, you may want to start thinking about it in roughly 3 categories

  • an academic fit
  • a social fit
  • and an institutional fit.

Finding an ACADEMIC FIT would seem easy at first glance: you look in a college guide, you see whether your SAT scores fall within that school’s 50% band at least, or whether your class rank and your GPA are more or less typical of most of the students that school accepts. These are indeed helpful ways – if your scores were way off from that band, then realistically your chances of admission would seem slim. Not impossible, but unlikely. And you either understand that this is a reach school, or you move on.

But there is a lot more to finding academic fit than just the seeing whether or not the school will take you. Ask yourself instead if in fact you want to be there!

  • What is it that you want to study – a school with no geology program may not be a good fit if you are interested in earth sciences
  • What kind of science resources does the school offer you as a prospective science researcher – few laboratory resources likely means less focus on such research
  • What size of class do you require to do well – are you okay with the anonymity of a large lecture hall, or do you want the intimacy of small seminars
  • How much contact do you want with your faculty – at a school that values teaching as much as famous faculty, this may be easier to achieve
  • How hard do you want to work or are you willing to work, in order to do well in a very demanding program
  • Do you need the structure of a core curriculum or extensive distribution requirements, or will you happily sacrifice those for the opportunity to shape your own curriculum

The application process is not limited to academics, however, because life at an American college is not limited to the classroom. Admission officers will therefore also ask themselves what kind of citizen will you be on their campus, what kind of contribution will you make?
Turning that around, ask yourself if this is the campus that offers you the SOCIAL FIT you need for the kind of experience you want?

• Do you want to be on a large campus, or do you want the small intimacy of a place where after 2 years you may know most of your compatriots
• Do you want to be in a bustling city, or does the splendid isolation of a beautiful campus in the countryside appeal to you
• Do you want to live on campus as long as possible, or do you want to get off and into your own place as soon as possible
• Do you want to attend college mostly with others who are like you- in geography or race or religion – or do you fully understand that you don’t go to college to be comfortable, but to question and to grow, and that is best done in places where you are challenged by a diversity of people and ideas

And finally there is the question of INSTITUTIONAL FIT. There are some things a particular college will always be looking for because they fit with what that school’s sense of its own identity, but admission goals may also change a little from your to year – the soccer goalie graduated, the orchestra lost its harpist, the engineers complain that they are not getting enough students with high math scores. Again, turning that upside down, you have to think about fit where the institution with which you are concerned is not the college, but yourself and your family.

  • Does a school have the kind of financial aid policies that you family needs
  • Are you okay with seeing your family a few times during the semester, or do you want to drop your laundry off every week
  • Do family circumstances or your own health situation make it more sensible to be closer to home or to medical care
  • Are you a student struggling with either physical or learning issues that require accommodation, and how well-organized is a school’s Disability Services

In the end, there will not be only one school that will fit with who you are and what you are looking for. Indeed, there ought not to be, because the wealth of opportunities in the US means that there are many places where you can have the experience you want. And that great fit you have identified is also only the starting point for your college career – how well you make it work, will depend on what you do at the college where you end up and the choices you make there.