Choosing which schools to include on your college list is never a simple process. You are likely juggling all sorts of priorities, ranging from your interests and the vibe of campus life to distance from home and admissions selectivity. Somehow, you have to find not just one school that matches your values, but at least a handful and possibly up to a dozen.

 

There’s no doubt that creating a college list can be an overwhelming prospect. But there’s another dimension to it that many students overlook. Have you ever considered how a school “fits” you? Or how you “fit” a school, for that matter?

 

You see, while you’re culling the field of colleges to choose a select few to which you’ll ultimately apply, schools are likewise culling a field of applicants. While there are many factors that get weighed during their admissions decisions, one that may be less recognized is how well you “fit” with the school’s mission and overall values.

 

Sometimes, even the most academically qualified student will get rejected from their dream school. Despite perfect standardized test scores, a number one class rank, and glowing academic recommendations, this student can’t seem to catch a break at the selective schools to which he’s applying. You might think there’s a hidden catch, like some disciplinary infraction. Perhaps you think that he has no extracurriculars to show for his four years in high school. But these may not be the case. Sometimes, a student gets rejected simply because he or she isn’t a good fit for the school.

 

What Does It Mean to “Fit” With A School?

 

Basically, all colleges have certain aspects of academic, social, and extracurricular life that are more important than others. Some schools place a heavy emphasis on sports. Others consider themselves schools for future leaders, and have an overarching leadership theme that runs throughout campus life. Some schools emphasize service or giving back to the community. Fitting with a school means your profile as an applicant fits well with their priorities as an institution.

 

Essentially, the most competitive colleges could fill their freshman class with students who achieve perfect test scores and rank highly in their high school class. After all, most students who apply consider themselves academically qualified.

 

It’s important, though, to remember that schools aren’t just looking for top students. They are looking at students individually, trying to find students who will fit their specific mission and contribute positively to their community as a whole.

 

What Does School Fit Mean When You’re Applying to College?

 

How well a college seems to fit can be a subjective concept, but it’s an important one to consider when you’re creating your college list. If you’re distinctly different from the type of student who typically attends a specific school, even though it meets all the other criteria that you require of schools on your college list, you should think twice before applying. While you may in fact have a great experience at that school, weigh the decision carefully. Some students feel lonely if they are surrounded by other students whose values and interests differ dramatically from their own.

 

How Do You Figure Out if a College is a Good Fit?

 

Most of this information can be gleaned from the school website. Pay attention to what is featured on the homepage, and what the tone of the page generally is. Think about the headlines most prominently displayed and read through the school’s mission statement.

 

In addition, don’t miss the section about student life. Read about the typical activities that students pursue and try to get a feeling for the vibe on campus. As you read it, ask yourself if you can picture yourself not simply existing there, but thriving there.

 

Finally, consider going straight to the source and asking some current students or recent grads about their experiences. Try to get an inside perspective and weigh it objectively against your own priorities and values. It might not be easy at first, but after a brief conversation you will start to get a feel for how you might fit at a specific school. 





CollegeVine Mentorship

A Few Examples From the Real World:

 

Columbia University:

 

If you visit Columbia’s website, right away you will see that the site is presented in a very simple and professional way. There are no blinking graphics or multicolored text. The website at first glance looks fairly traditional.

 

If you do some exploring, you will quickly find that much of life at Columbia is centered around the Core Curriculum, which are broad curricular standards required of every student. In fact, information about the Core Curriculum is linked prominently at the top of the school’s homepage, right next to the “About the College” tab. Indeed, the overall feel is very academically focused.

 

As such, Columbia seeks students who are very academically driven. The website boasts that “no other college in America offers students the integration of the highest level of educational excellence.”

 

A student who fits well at Columbia will be academically successful and driven to succeed in academic pursuits at the highest level. Given how central Columbia’s Core Curriculum is to the student experience, applicants should ideally demonstrate what is often called “intellectual curiosity” in admissions spheres—the desire to learn and pursue topics in and outside of one’s field of interest. The Core also encourages interdisciplinary thinking, so students with a broad range of interests who have shown their ability to approach problems in unique ways and seek out intersections between fields may also be a particularly good fit.

 

Cornell University

 

At first glance the Cornell website also appears fairly traditional, although its focus is a bit more diverse or multidisciplinary. One headline appears about a student-run garden in Harlem, and a sidebar outlines the results of recent athletic competitions.

 

If you explore the site and happen to click on an athletic result, you’ll find yourself transported to a whole new website highlighting Cornell athletics, complete with an online shop and online ticket sales. Another link opens a separate site for Campus and Community Engagement, with a searchable database of over 1000 student groups, including many fraternities and sororities.

 

Cornell has a heavier focus on sports and Greek life than you will find at, say, Columbia. To fit well at Cornell, you might be involved with athletics or interested in Greek life. Even if you aren’t, to be a good fit you should at least appreciate the student community that they create. This culture has developed in part because Cornell is a particularly large university, with student enrollment that far exceeds that of any other Ivy. If you’re interested in more of a traditional collegiate experience (which is often accompanied by athletics and Greek Life) Cornell might be the right place for you.

 

Vanderbilt University

 

The Vanderbilt website is immediately interactive and engaging. Headlines across the top rotate with time-lapse photos and videos. One headline advertises “An environment of academic freedom” while another refers to “facilitating cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas”.

 

As you explore the website more, you can see that Vanderbilt prides itself on the integration of academics and student life, with an academic focus that merges many topics in cross-disciplinary studies.

 

The mission advises that applicants should have a “love of learning as opposed to the mechanical pursuit of good grades. Participate in extracurricular activities because they have meaning to you, not merely because they will be needed for your college application.”

 

These values are reflected in campus life, too. Many living options are communal in nature, bringing you together regularly with your classmates and professors. Some living options even merge undergraduate dorms with living arrangements for graduate students, teacher’s assistants, and professors. Here, you can live with your academic mentors.

 

To fit in at Vanderbilt, you should be committed to the pursuit of learning and appreciate learning for learning’s sake. While this is an easy concept to say you’re committed to, try to actually envision yourself living alongside your academic mentors. For some students, this nonstop contact might seem suffocating if you really just want a break from academia outside the classroom. But if this is your dream come true, Vanderbilt might be a great fit for you.

 

Pomona College

 

The Pomona College homepage features student and professor profiles that rotate at the top in a slideshow, each highlighting the achievements of a particular student or professor. The Life @ Pomona link opens a tab divided into information about dorms, information about student organizations, and an entire page dedicated to “A Better World”.

 

Pomona emphasizes service, social justice, and global citizenship. Much of its website outlines leadership programs, sustainable living programs like its community Green Bikes, the PowerDown dorm challenge, and community engagement like tutoring local students, mentoring, and volunteering.

 

The school’s mission speaks further to this emphasis, citing the school’s global orientation, commitment to a diverse student population, and focus on creating a generation of leaders, scholars, artists and citizens. It concludes with a nod to the school’s founders, whose vision was to education students “to bear their added riches in trust for all.”

 

To be a good fit at Pomona, you should also be committed to service and global change. Your high school transcripts might include some volunteer or service work, and your essay may even speak to its importance in shaping who you are. If you are seeking a more insular academic experience, you might find the global focus a little uncomfortable, but if you’re driven towards social justice and global citizenship, you may find the perfect fit there.

 

Finding a college that “fits” is a two-way street. In part, it’s about your personal interests, values, and priorities. On the other hand, it’s also about the values and mission at each specific college. Two colleges with similar admissions statistics might place a totally different emphasis on campus life or student resources. There is much more to the college search than simply numbers, and finding a college that’s a good fit is integral to setting you on the path towards success.

 

Of course, just because a college doesn’t place a heavy emphasis on sports or student government, doesn’t mean that a student who’s interested in those things won’t do well there or won’t get accepted. It just means that you might be end up being one of a smaller student population who values those things. For some students that works just right, and for others it isn’t comfortable. Only you can decide.

 

If you’re just beginning or in the midst of your college search, and you need some more guidance or insight into creating a college list full of schools that are a good fit, consider the benefits of the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students.

 

For more information about choosing your college, check out these CollegeVine posts:

 

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist