In a previous article, I revealed many foolish mistakes students make in picking a college or university.
In this post, I want to share some guidance on what students — and their parents — should be looking for in selecting a four-year school.
Finding the right academic institution is an important part of the march toward earning an undergraduate degree. After all, a student who picks the wrong school may wind up socially miserable, financially unable to afford tuition, or academically out of place and stuck at an institution that doesn’t even offer a desired program of study.
As I explain in College Secrets, selecting the wrong campus causes scores of students to later switch schools, change majors, or even drop out of college altogether. All of these can waste time and money, and often needlessly prolong college completion.
Taking a Student-Centered Approach
Peter Van Buskirk is one of the nation’s leading college experts. A former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, where he also oversaw financial aid and athletics, Van Buskirk now runs BestCollegeFit.com, and he counsels students and families nationwide about navigating higher education.
According to Van Buskirk, the key to finding the right college fit or the “best” college for you is to approach the process in a “student-centered way,” as opposed to initially being focused on any particular college or university.
Begin by making personal and critical reflections about yourself. Van Buskirk suggests focusing on three things: who you are, why you want to go to college, and what you hope to get out of the college experience.
“I lead students through the self-discovery process,” Van Buskirk says, “because I find that kids rarely step back to understand the character and personality issues that truly define them.”
So Van Buskirk encourages students to ask and answer a series of questions in order to dig deep and make the college search process more about the student — and less about the institution.
Among the many questions you might ask yourself are:
What are my values?
In other words, what are the things that are most important to you as a person? Is it family, financial success, having a feeling of accomplishment, helping others, or something else altogether? There are no right or wrong answers. But the key is to know what makes you tick.
What do I do well?
In answering this question, think of your academics and outside pursuits, as well as areas where you may have “soft skills” such as listening to others, demonstrating compassion, time-management skills, flexibility/adaptability, or the ability to work well in groups.
What do I have to offer?
“Think not just academically or intellectually, but as someone with a range of talents, interests and perspectives,” Van Buskirk says.
What do I hope to have accomplished by the time I finish my studies?
Attending college isn’t just about getting A’s or earning a diploma by going to class everyday, taking exams, and banging out papers. What else do you hope to gain out of college life?
Do you want to have completed your own research into why online bullying is becoming increasingly prevalent in the U.S., or what causes nations go to war? Are you interested in using higher education as a pathway to understanding other cultures, perhaps through study abroad programs or other initiatives?
Or are you interested in doing hands-on training, participating in social projects or landing paid internships? Whatever the case, think through — and even write down — what your goals are for those four years you’ll be earning a degree.
Five Important Criteria
Once you have a solid understanding of yourself, and your personal interests, Van Buskirk says you can identify a college with a good “fit” when it meets five crucial criteria:
The school offers programs of study to match your interests and needs
The institution provides styles of instruction to match the way you like to learn
It provides levels of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation
It has communities that feel like home to you
It values you for what you do well and what you have to offer
It’s that last piece — about a school “valuing” you — that will signal whether a school is a good “financial fit.” But before we discuss that aspect of fit, let’s focus on the other critical elements of “fit.”
Assessing a School’s Programs of Study
It may sound obvious that you should select a school with programs of study that coincide with your interests, but a shocking number of students fail to consider this all-important criteria.
For instance, nearly three million students begin college each year in America. While many of them declare a major, many also do not.
Being undeclared is not a problem, especially since it gives you the freedom to explore various avenues of study and to learn about a range of topics.
It’s also important to note that not every 18-year-old is certain about his or her intended career path. That’s fine, too.
However, too many students who pick the wrong schools — including both “declared” and “undeclared” pupils — later complain that what they ultimately were interested in majoring in wasn’t available at their undergraduate institution.
Key Questions to Ask
To make sure you don’t miss the mark this way, ask yourself:
Does the school offer the major you’d like to study or that you most likely want to pursue?
Does the campus have the curriculum to support your other intellectual interests?
Are special areas of interest to you already present and plentiful at the campus?
If you aren’t sure what you want to study, but you do have two or three options in mind, consider this:
Are all the academic options/majors you’re considering available at your chosen campus in case you wind up leaning one way or another?
Examining an Institution’s Styles of Instruction
One reason many educators advocate that undergraduates get a liberal arts education is that it provides for the type of broad inquiry into a range of topics that students might not otherwise get on their own outside of college life. Where else, besides college, can a young adult delve into areas as varied as philosophy, the arts, history and comparative literature — all in the same week, or even the same day?
But teaching methodologies vary across schools, so it’s not enough to know that a college or university might offer you access to a broad or “core” curriculum. You should also consider how that curriculum is delivered.
Some schools emphasize classroom time, lectures from faculty, or group projects and presentations. Other campuses focus on experiential learning, where students are often outside the classroom engaged in active, hands-on learning. Still other schools go heavy on digital learning and online classes are the norm.
Again, there’s no single best way to impart knowledge to all students. So you have to know your own learning style and what suits you best.
Do you prefer in-class learning or out-of-class educational experiences best?
Does listening to lecture series by a variety of experts inspire you or bore you?
Are you most content unearthing knowledge by poring through stacks of library books — or would you prefer to learn through trial and error or your own discovery process?
For those interested in experiential learning opportunities, a school that gives you access to ample internships, plenty of field research and hands-on activities would be a good fit.
All of these are important considerations and should drive your school selections. The goal, naturally, is to find a college or university that will teach you want you want to learn in the way that is most natural or appealing to you. That way, you will stay engaged in the learning process and remain motivated to excel.
Finding a School With the Best Social or Personal Fit
Lots of colleges and universities aspire to build rich, diverse communities where students of all backgrounds can thrive and grow. But each campus has its own unique culture and flavor, and what might be suitable to others — including some of your own relatives — may not seem right to you.
So ask yourself:
Does the campus feel comfortable to you?
Can you see yourself fitting in somewhere?
What kind of social environment do you prefer?
If you value diversity and inclusiveness, is that evident in the student body and faculty?
Be honest with yourself about your likes and dislikes — and how that matches up against the many communities offered within a college or university setting.
Some students may prefer a school with a religious philosophy, so they might favor Christian, Catholic or Jesuit institutions. Others may go in the opposite direction, preferring a college or university with no religious affiliation.
Whatever your personal preferences, it’s important to find a place that you’ll be happy to call your home for at least four years.
Once you’ve asked yourself these questions and answered them, you may find that certain schools tick off all the boxes, so to speak.
Even if no campus immediately jumps out at you, over time the right ones will emerge as you continue the selection process, learn about new and different schools, and embark on college tours and visits.
Choosing the College With the Best Financial Fit
There is a final way to evaluate “fit,” and it boils down to money.
Simply put, a school that values you will recognize that there is compatibility between you and the institution, and it will demonstrate its commitment to you financially — as a way to invest in your talents, interests and perspectives.
Unfortunately, most students don’t get this aspect of the equation. Some think that if the school granted them admission, that’s good enough, or that admission alone shows the school’s interest.
I strongly disagree.
I believe that if you look hard enough, and open your mind to an array of possibilities, you can find many schools that will meet all of your academic and personal needs — including your financial needs — when it comes to earning a college degree.
Putting this concept into practice is sometimes a bit tricky for students and families because it means you must find those campuses that intersect in terms of being a good academic and personal fit, in addition to being a good financial fit.
“What might be valued with a scholarship at one school night not be valued even for admission at another school,” Van Buskirk notes.
When it comes to getting into schools and winning aid for higher education, “students often see themselves as having worked hard and being deserving of an outcome. But they don’t realize that they need to compete — for admissions and for aid,” Van Buskirk notes.
Getting the Largest Possible Financial Aid Package
The two primary ways to secure financial assistance from the college of your choice is to be in the top part of the talent pool at your chosen institution, and to understand the college aid process.
All two-year and four-year schools give out two forms of college aid: need-based aid based on your economic circumstances, or merit-based aid based on your talents and accomplishments. Many schools give out both.
But some schools only provide need-based aid. This is true of Ivy League schools and many top private institutions.
“One of the things that some families are surprised by is that we don’t offer any merit scholarships,” says Karen Richardson, former Tufts University associate director of admissions, and now the school’s director of graduate admissions. “As a university, all of the funding that we have goes for need-based financial aid, and we meet 100% of financial need.”
The Importance of Merit Aid
If money is a big consideration — and it is for most families — you absolutely must do some research around two crucial questions:
- How much need-based aid are you likely to qualify for, given your family income and assets?
- Which colleges or universities offer merit aid for which you are likely to qualify?
By answering these two questions, you’ll develop a potential list of schools that can be strong financial fits. To find schools that offer merit aid, one terrific resource is MeritAid.com, which lets you search by college name to find merit scholarships from thousands of higher education institutions.
In addition to providing financial aid to meet your economic need or merit aid that recognizes your talents with scholarships or special academic opportunities (like study abroad, internships, research, honors programs, or special mentoring), there are other ways that schools demonstrate that they value you.
According to Van Buskirk, how a college interacts with you during the recruitment process is often a telltale sign of the way it will treat you once you enroll as a student. Specifically, colleges that value you for what you have to offer will:
- Give you personal attention throughout the recruitment process;
- Be open to answering your questions about housing, registration, or payment plans in a timely manner;
- Encourage you to explore all your college options, including “unofficial” sources of information, such as by talking with current students or alumni
The Role of Guidance Counselors
Do take caution, however, in getting information from certain sources that may not have direct knowledge about a campus or the skills to guide you in finding the best financial fit.
Unfortunately, this warning even includes guidance counselors in many high schools.
“It’s hard enough when you have a student whose parents went to college; in most cases they don’t even understand this stuff,” says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com. “But it’s incredibly hard and even more difficult for students whose parents didn’t go to college. They usually just turn to their school counselor and high school counselors are usually of no help at all regarding money matters.”
“Their answer to all of this is to hold a financial aid night in the fall for high school seniors,” she says. “But that’s just way late in the game, and there’s so much more to all of this than filing out a financial aid form.”
In fairness to counselors, O’Shaughnessy says: “They know usually next to nothing about how to finance a college degree simply because they’re not trained in this area. They may have Master’s degrees in counseling. But those degrees don’t include college planning,” she notes. “It’s a national scandal.”
Thoughts on College Rankings
And what about using college rankings as a way to find the best college fit?
Van Buskirk and others offer this advice: Don’t obsess over rankings.
If you use them at all, simply let them serve as a guide or a starting point. Then supplement the rankings with your own research, college visits, feedback from students and faculty, and even your gut instincts about how you’d like to experience life on a particular campus.
As a final point of consideration, spend some time thinking about whether you’d be best served studying at a true college versus a university.
If you attend a college that emphasizes a liberal arts curriculum, you will gain broad exposure to a variety of disciplines, yet still have the flexibility to concentrate on a specific major.
For instance, you might be a history major who also takes statistics, art and biology courses. The goal of a liberal arts education is to promote intellectual curiosity and boost your ability to think critically about a wide range of varying subjects.
By contrast, most large universities are research-focused.
Many also offer pre-professional programs, such as business or law, to prepare you for advanced studies in those fields or specialized career paths. Both colleges and universities can provide experiential learning experiences, such as internships and research opportunities.
But many people like O’Shaughnessy think that liberal arts colleges programs generally offer closer contact with faculty, more mentoring opportunities, smaller class size and more individualized instruction.
If you follow all of these tips, you’ll find the best college for you — one where you can be happy, and one you can afford.