With her book The Other College Guide hot off the press (co-authored with Paul Glastris and the staff of The Washington Monthly), Jane Sweetland has expert college search advice to spare. Luckily, she chose to share it with you! Keep reading for the four areas of college “fit” you need to investigate in finding the perfect school for you.
There are nearly 4,000 colleges out there. And there’s so much information about all of them that it’s like shopping for clothes in a stadium-size store crammed with everything you’d ever need for every occasion, season, age, size, style, and color. There are just too many variables to think about all at once. It’s crazy overwhelming. But before you start to worry, remember that finding the right college doesn’t actually begin with all those thousands of colleges. It begins with you. More specifically, it begins by thinking about what fits you—and what you actually want out of a college—in four different categories: academic, financial, social, and physical. Once you’ve narrowed down what you’re looking for, those 4,000 colleges will magically decrease to a hundred, then to a dozen, and finally to one: the best college choice for you. Here’s how to get started.
The academic fit is really important because what you’re shopping for, after all, is an academic experience that will get you where you want to go—in life, in a career, in the future.
One good way to get your juices flowing is thinking about what you might want to major in. While your college experience isn’t just about career-preparation, research shows that choosing a major that will sustain your interest over the long haul has some pretty, ahem, major impacts on your future economic opportunities. If you have a specific career focus, look closely at what a school has available to help you: the faculty, the lab, or opportunities for research, presentations, or performance. Not all colleges offer engineering, nursing, or global studies, so check out the options. On the other hand, don’t get hung up on the major question because the truth is, as you open yourself to all kinds of learning, you will find paths you never knew existed. Employers want to hire graduates who can think, analyze, make judgments and communicate well—and most often these skills are not specific to any one major.
The other thing you have to do when considering schools that “fit” you academically is be honest with yourself. Take a cold, hard look at your own academic record—your grades, the classes you took, etc.—and compare it with different colleges’ requirements. If you don’t meet a particular college’s criteria, chances are you’re wasting your time and money (not to mention your wishes and prayers) trying to get in. While you definitely want to choose a college that will challenge and excite you, don’t make the mistake of equating “challenging and exciting” with “expensive” or “prestigious.” Trust me: those aren’t the same.
This is a tough one, in part because we’re conditioned to believe that the higher the price, the better the product. If that jacket is $300 bucks, it must have some kind of special sauce up in there, right? Wrong. It’s plain not true. There are great colleges out there that are affordable and offer educations that are just as good (and often better, depending on what you’re studying!) than the pricier alternatives.
The other thing people don’t tell you is this: in the long run, it doesn’t matter how fancy or expensive or prestigious your college was if you a) don’t make it all the way to graduation, or b) you graduate with so much debt that your life choices are dictated by a monthly student loan bill you can’t pay off until you’re almost 80. You’re actually going to be way worse off if either of those things happen to you. So while you should go to college and you should graduate—college graduates earn a whole lot more during the course of their lives than those without degrees—and you should feel comfortable going into (some) debt, you’ve got to be smart about it. Find the right financial fit.
That means understanding the difference between federal and private loans and understanding your repayment options from the beginning. You should also get in touch with the college directly. Are they offering you scholarships, grants, or loans? What are the conditions and terms of the grants (money you don’t have to pay back)? Do you get them for one year or are they renewable? You get the idea. The financial aid discussion involves more than I can cover here, but there’s one thing you must do: fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s a bit of a pain, but it should take less than an hour (they say 30 minutes, in fact) and it’s required for federal and state aid. Most colleges require it for institutional aid as well. It could mean thousands of dollars to help you pay for college, so suck it up. And don’t pay anyone to do it for you because the FAFSA is free.
When you think about whether a college is the right “physical fit,” you’re thinking about where you want to be. If, like most students, you want to stick pretty close to home, College Navigator can give you a list of all the types of colleges within a radius of five to 250 miles just by putting in your zip code.
If you’re not limiting your search by distance from home, you need to familiarize yourself with the surrounding geography and climate of the colleges you’re considering. Is the campus urban, rural, dense, spread out? How close is the closest city and how would you get there? What’s the weather like and how often would you be able to come home?
The other part of the physical fit is the size of the school. Compare it to your high school. Is it big enough to be anonymous or small enough to be personal? What is the average class size? Are you going to need binoculars to see the whiteboard? What’s the transportation and housing like? When you take a campus tour—virtual or actual—you’ll get a feel for the atmosphere, but it’s important to take the time to go beyond the good-looking tour guide and think through what a college’s location, environment, and size means to you.
The social fit is linked to the physical fit because how you socialize has a lot to do with the environment and what’s going on in the area. Part of feeling like you belong on campus—whether you’re a residential or commuter student—can mean finding other students who share your interests and, perhaps, some of your experiences. How much diversity is there on campus and will you be one of a minority? What about spiritual affiliations? Are there clubs, organizations, and centers where you can get to know others with similar backgrounds or interests?
You can get a glimpse of what some students think about a campus by reading posts and other materials, but there’s no substitute for a campus visit. Try to visit during the semester when school is in full swing and don’t be shy about asking questions. You’ll probably be surprised by how eager everyone will be to lend their opinion. It’s far better to ask and be prepared than to be caught off guard later.
The final part of the social fit brings us full circle to the academic fit. Serious academics is compatible with a good social life—but it’s a balance that students have to learn for themselves. How much studying is going on? How seriously are students taking college? It may be attractive to think of a school as a “party” school, but nobody needs a degree to party. (And you really don’t want to be stuck paying 30 years' of student loans for it.)
Shopping for colleges can be daunting, but just like shopping for anything, it’s easier if you know what you really need. Limiting thousands of schools to the handful that pass your fitness tests will give you a way to focus on what matters without forgetting the big picture. After all, college is much more than a path to a good gig after graduation. It is an opportunity to be in a place where you will grow your talents, connect with others who share your goals, and learn to be a leader in your family, your community, and the world. As you think about your college choices, think about your reasons for going to college in the first place. Then think about where you want to be as you grow in knowledge, expand your network, and learn to engage with the world in a way that will get you where you want to go.