Best-Fit Schools: How to Find the Right College for You
- Important College Fit Factors
- Strategies for How to Find the Right Colleges
- Selecting a Best-Fit College
When you hear people say, “best” colleges, best is a code word for hardest to get accepted to. Rest assured, there are no absolute best schools. The right college for you is not the right college for someone else and visa-versa. With any list of schools—even of the most competitive institutions—there are ones that suit your learning profile, academic interests, needs, and aspirations better than others!
Important College Fit Factors
Landing on your list of best-fit schools requires you to be self-aware. What good is it for you to attend a school that doesn’t provide an environment in which you will thrive and achieve your potential? Avoid getting caught up in the perceived prestige of a college. The temporary happiness that the shine of the name provides will fade quickly if the school is not a good fit.
In fact, the results of in-depth interviews of college students conducted by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Howard Gardener and Wendy Fischman, just published by MIT Press in The Real World of College: What High Education Is and What It Can Be, reveal that college students consider mental health the most important problem on campus due to the pressure of academics, followed by the stress of friendship issues and cutthroat social environments.
This research corroborates how crucial it is to be honest with yourself as you ponder the questions below. It is the critical first step to building a list of schools that meet your criteria.
Diversity & Intensity of Academics
The following prompts will help you determine the breadth, depth, and rigor of academic offerings you want a college to provide.
- Are you sure about the field of study you want to pursue, or do you want to sample a range of disciplines before deciding? Many students enter college with an “undecided major.”
- Are you looking to pursue a pre-professional track or the liberal arts?
- How strong is the department or program you are potentially interested in?
- Do you not want to be required to take courses outside of your major? (Some schools have an open curriculum, meaning they do not have distribution requirements: Amherst College, Brown University, Hamilton College, Hampshire College, Smith College, and Wesleyan University. Others have minimal distribution requirements: University of Rochester, Vassar College, and Wake Forest University.)
- How many credits are required for graduation — more or less than the typical college?
- How many classes are you allowed to take pass/fail in and out of your major to ease academic pressure?
- What percent of students drop out of specific academic pathways (such as pre-med) due to academic performance issues?
Size of School & Program(s) of Interest
Think about the questions below to clarify if a smaller college or a big university is a better fit for you.
- Do you thrive in smaller, more personal settings or large bustling environments?
- Would you prefer to be the proverbial big fish in a small pond? (Note: Sometimes large universities have smaller schools or academic programs within, providing a more intimate experience.)
- Are you more attracted to smaller classes that enable active student interaction or large lectures?
- Is it important to you that professors know you by name?
The following questions will help you determine if you should investigate opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. Remember research is not only relevant for the hard sciences.
- Is research an important component of your (potential) field of study?
- Are on-campus research opportunities with professors important to your future education or career preferences?
- Are there opportunities for research in institutions close to the school?
There are several aspects that shape the culture of a school. The questions below offer ways to get a sense of this important intangible.
- Do you want a school to have a religious affiliation?
- Are you comfortable in a socially liberal or more conservative environment?
- Does the school have a diverse student body in terms of ethnicity, geography, from public/independent/parochial/home-school high schools, etc., percent legacy?
- Does the school have a diverse faculty?
- Would you prefer to spend weekends engaged in on or off-campus activities?
- Do you want to participate in Greek life as a member of a fraternity or sorority?
- Do you enjoy the big rah-rah sports scene?
- Beyond parties and dances, what evening and weekend social activities interest you and does the school offer them?
Sports & Extracurricular Opportunities
While academics are a critical component of school fit, life outside the classroom shapes the college experience and is often a source of enduring friendships. When you think about the questions below, think not only about the extracurriculars you enjoy in high school but also about the ones you’d like to try for the first time in college.
- What opportunities and clubs/organizations are appealing to you? Artistic? (Think about both fine and performing arts.) Cultural? Social service? (Both on and off-campus.) Advocacy? (Think about what causes you want to raise awareness for and support, from environmental to racial equity, to LGBTQ+, ….) Active/outdoor? Agriculture? Religious groups?
- How important is playing a varsity sport in college to you and what division and league are you best suited to?
- Are you interested in participating in a club or intramural sports?
Discover your chances at hundreds of schools
Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.
Paying for college is a practical consideration best to think about early in the process to eliminate added stress in college.
- Is it important for you to graduate college with no or minimal debt?
- Does your state school offer the fields of study of interest to you? Is there an honors program you could apply to?
- Are you looking for schools with need-blind admissions? Merit-based scholarships?
- How prevalent are part-time job opportunities on-campus and/or off-campus?
Location & Distance from Home
Remember, there are no wrong or right answers. There are valid reasons some students choose to stay close to home and others venture far afield. The same goes with why some students choose urban, suburban, or rural locations.
- In your free time do you prefer spending time in nature or cities? Whichever you prefer, is that choice easily accessible from the location of the school?
- Is it important to you to be within driving distance from your family?
- Is the cost of travel to and from school something you need to consider in your budget?
- Do you need or want to live at home? If so, are day-student commuters well integrated into the school?
- Are you interested in exploring a new part of the United States or a new country?
Recognizing the types of support that will help you thrive in college is a sign of maturity. We all get by with a little help from our friends—and others!
- Would you benefit from academic support services, such as writing centers, peer tutors, …?
- Would you benefit from mental health services, such as support groups, counselors, …?
- Do you want to be part of an affinity group, such as first-generation college students, LGBTQ+ students, international students, ….?
- Do you have a medical condition that requires accommodations on campus or access to medical professionals off-campus?
Career Preparation Beyond Academics
One aspect of your college experience is how well it prepares you for life after college. Think about how important the following non-academic career initiatives are to your future.
- How strong are the college’s career guidance and counseling?
- Does the school have an active alumni network you could tap?
- Are internships part of the curriculum or readily available to students?
- Does the school offer college-funded internships or must they be paid by the employer?
- Do you want to be in an area with access to off-campus extracurricular internships and/or jobs?
While we all hope to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, the situation continues to morph, and nobody can be sure of the future impact. But you can look at each school’s and state’s current and past pandemic philosophy and policies to determine if the approach is consistent with your personal preferences and values.
- Are vaccinations required for on-campus students, faculty, and staff?
- Does the school require and provide frequent COVID testing?
- Are masks required for in-person classes and events?
- Does the school offer remote learning options?
- How has the school handled local and/or on-campus COVID spikes?
- Has the school found creative ways to strengthen community beyond large indoor gatherings?
Strategies for How to Find the Right Colleges
Once you are clear on your priorities, it’s time to find schools that meet your criteria. There are many ways to get a feel for options.
- Scour college websites, social media, and YouTube videos.
- Talk to school counselors, trusted teachers, older friends, relatives, …The more perspectives the better!
- Attend prospective student events in your town, at your school, and online.
- Visit if possible. (Some schools offer paid visitation programs for prospective students who come from underrepresented populations.)
- Speak to current students. (Ask your high school counselor for the names of former students who attend. College admission offices can also help you make connections to current students who share your interests.). Here’s a list of questions to spark ideas for discussion points.
We recommend that each student applies to at least eight colleges: four “target,” two “safeties” and two “reaches.” Many students apply to more than eight schools but given the amount of work required to complete a strong application, most do not apply to more than 15.
Remember, you can estimate your chance for acceptance into the schools on your best-fit list using Collegevine’s free chancing calculator. This tool factors in your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and more to calculate your odds of admission at hundreds of schools across the country.
Selecting a Best-Fit College
With acceptances in hand, it’s time to turn your attention to determining which school to choose. Here’s the good news. Since you did the work to apply to those colleges that are right for you, you are selecting from best-fit options. Whichever college you choose will likely support your growth as a student and a person. Final advice, remember, college is what you make of it.