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Finding the right college fit: Pick the Best College for You

Are you wondering how to find a college that’s the best fit for you? Finding the right college fit is essential for a great college experience! This post is full of tips to help you find your best college fit!

Finding the best college fit is a process that goes beyond merely considering academic programs or prestigious rankings. Finding your college fit is about discovering an environment where you’ll thrive personally, academically, and socially.

College fit is about finding a place that will foster your growth, challenge you to expand your horizons, and ignite your passion for learning.

Choosing a college is a big decision. It can be one of the most important, emotionally fraught, and expensive choices that you and your family make.

How to know if a college is right for you is a key question in the college search process.

This article gives you nine essential criteria for finding your college fit, plus tips on choosing between colleges.

There could be many “right” choices: colleges and universities with similar sizes, locations, vibes, majors, and faculty.

There are also many “wrong” choices, where you wouldn’t feel at home, thrive academically or socially, or be able to afford to continue for four years.

But don’t worry— you should be able to find several colleges that would be a good fit for you to add to your college list.

Finding the right college fit is a key part of the college application process.

It’s how your family can ensure both that the financial investment in college prepares you for a rewarding career and that you can pursue academic challenges, develop your passions, and progress toward adulthood.

You and your family should discuss all the elements of college fit early in the college admissions process, preferably through all four years of high school.

You might have ideas early on about what sort of college you think would be the best fit for you, but you will need to dig deeper to determine what you’re really looking for from your college experience. 

Use these guidelines to understand how to figure out what college is right for you and find a college that fits your needs and preferences.

Which college is the right fit for you?

What is College Fit?

College fit refers to the compatibility between a student and a particular college or university.

College fit encompasses many different aspects of college life that influence how well a college or university will meet a student’s academic, social, cultural, financial, and personal needs and preferences.

Finding the best “college fit” is about choosing a college or university that best meets all the needs of an individual student, from the vast array of higher education institutions.

9 elements of college fit 

1. Financial Fit–Can you afford this college?

Higher education is expensive! But you’ll have to look beyond the sticker price to know how much it will actually cost for you to attend a certain college or university.

The listed tuition cost is not always helpful. Some private colleges offer generous scholarships that reduce the cost of tuition substantially. Some public universities give extra funding to in-state students or offer in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students.

Some universities are transparent about guaranteed merit offers for students with different GPAs or standardized test scores. Some colleges are clear about what financial aid they provide for students from different income levels.

Many top-tier colleges only give financial aid based on financial need. They don’t give any merit money based on grades or test scores. Need-blind colleges that offer need-based aid to low-income students often have high price tags, but are very affordable if you qualify for aid.

Most universities only provide detailed financial aid letters after acceptance and a review of the merit and financial needs of their accepted applicants. Very few colleges are thoroughly explicit about cost early in the application process.

Families can make educated guesses about aid, based on information the university provides and by running the Net Price Calculator on each college’s website, but the final numbers won’t be official until the university sends out their total financial aid offer.

Each student’s aid package will vary based on their family’s perceived financial need and how much the college wants to recruit them. 

If the cost of college is a concern, apply to fewer “reach” schools, where you will be competing against students with similar standardized test scores, extracurriculars, and grades for admission and scholarship funds.

If cost is a factor in the college search, you should apply to schools that are known to offer generous grants and scholarships.

Apply to more schools that want to attract students with your test scores and grades. To have the best chance at earning merit scholarships, apply to schools where you are in the top 10% of students. These are known as “safety” schools, because you have an excellent chance of acceptance.

You should also look closely at “target” schools, where your grades and test scores align with the majority of enrolled students. See what scholarships are available at the colleges that would be your target schools

Most importantly, don’t fall in love with a dream school until you receive all the financial aid packages and know the final costs. 

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a good financial fit:

  • How big is the university’s endowment per student? 
  • What percentage of students receive financial aid?
  • How much is your family able and willing to spend per year for college? For how many years?
  • How many years will it take to graduate? (At many private colleges, it takes four years. At many public universities, it may take five or six. Ask why.)
  • Is your merit aid package guaranteed for four years?
  • How many years will a financial aid offer last? What factors could cause it to decrease?
  • What GPA do you have to have to maintain your scholarship?
  • How much debt does your family consider to be a manageable amount? 
  • What are the extra costs of each particular school? (Room and board, fees, and transportation costs vary greatly!)
  • How do you feel about having loans to pay when you graduate?
  • Are you planning to go to medical school, law school, or a graduate program, where you would have to take on more debt?
Affordability is an important part of finding the right college fit.

2. Personal development fit–Can you Follow your Passions at this college?

Opportunities for students to develop leadership skills, hone personal interests, meet other students, and try new things are the fun part of college that students remember forever. 

For a college to be a good fit, students must be able to participate in clubs, student organizations, athletics, artistic pursuits, and other extracurricular activities. Students should look for a college with robust student life activities.

Being able to follow your passions is a key part of what makes a college a good fit.

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a good personal Development fit:

  • What passions do you want to pursue outside of class?
  • Will you be able to participate in (not just observe) sports, theatre, musical performances, or whatever activity you love?
  • Does this college have the athletic programs, arts programs, or other programs that I love?
  • How involved do you think you want to be in different activities?
  • How do you want to spend your free time?
  • Are these activities accessible to everyone, or are they limited to a small number of students or to students studying certain majors?

3. Is this college a good Social fit?

Peer groups matter. Students learn from one another, encourage each other, and collaborate together.

When prospective students go on campus visits, they should talk to current students. Ask them to describe a typical student at that college. Find out what students like to do for fun.

It’s important to find a college fit where a student’s peers have similar goals, are in college for the same reasons, and are equally committed to learning. 

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a good Social fit:

  • Who do you want to live with for four years? 
  • What type of people feel like your tribe?
  • Do you want a college that leans a certain way politically?
  • How are the dorms? Do the dorms foster community?
  • Do most students live on campus? Do many go home on weekends? How does the college foster social activities? 
college students talking
College friends might be the best friends. Look for a college that would be a good social fit.

4. Do you like the Culture of this College?

Each university has its own culture and vibe You may find this to be an intangible trait, but a college’s culture sets the tone for everything on campus. 

Often, a student’s sense of a college’s culture is key to deciding if that school seems like the right college fit.

A college’s culture is reflected in things like diversity and inclusivity, political leanings, active student organizations, and what students choose to do in their free time.

Does the campus culture, values, and social scene resonate with the students’ personality, interests, and values?

Visiting the college or talking to students who attend or recently graduated are great ways to learn more about the student body and the overall vibe of the college.

questions to ask when considering if the culture of a college will be a good fit:

  • What is the mission of the college?
  • Does the college have an honor code?
  • Are students competitive against one another or do they collaborate?
  • Are students generally stressed out or laid back?
  • Does the university make a point of promoting discourse?
  • Do students honor a wide range of diverse identities and opinions?
  • Is the college a historically black college and university (HBCU) or a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI)?
  • Does the university have a religious affiliation?

5. Is this college the right Academic Fit?

Students should consider whether or not a school has their intended major…plus a few other college majors that they might be interested in if they change their mind.

Read the list of courses required in your major and check out course descriptions. Are there lots of classes in your academic interests?

Look for evidence of accessible, engaged faculty. Dedicated faculty who work with students on research projects, offer thoughtful advising, and provide mentoring make all the difference to student engagement and success.

When students feel that their thoughts and their work matter to faculty, they feel validated and encouraged. This can make all the difference in making you feel like your college is a good fit. 

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a good Academic fit:

  • What’s the learning environment at this college?
  • Are you more likely to learn best in small discussion-based classes or in large lecture halls?
  • Will you be comfortable approaching a professor who doesn’t know you personally?
  • Do you want to learn only from professors, or are you comfortable with graduate teaching assistants?
  • Will you thrive at an academically focused college, or do they need a school where studying is balanced with co-curricular activities?
  • Can undergraduate students conduct hands-on research? How about as a freshman?
  • Does the school offer support resources such as a writing center and tutoring, in case you fall behind?

6. Is the Location of this college right for you?

Big city, small city, suburban, small town, or rural: colleges are located everywhere.

Some students like the feeling of a rural college campus, where all their activities are college-based. A rural setting can promote closeness among students and lead to lots of on-campus social events.

Other students can’t wait for the opportunities afforded by an urban environment. At an urban college campus, students can benefit from the cultural resources and job and internship opportunities found in a city.

Some students want to go far from home, and others want or need to stay close by. Again, there’s no perfect answer to what campus location is the best one. That depends on what would be the best fit for you. 

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a good Location fit:

  • Do you prefer a rural or urban setting? Do you want a small-town feel?
  • Would you prefer to be close to home? How close is close enough? 
  • Do you want to go far away? How far is too far?
  • Can I drive home? If I need to buy airline tickets to return home, how expensive are they?
  • How’s the weather? Is it too hot or too cold?
  • How long will it take to get home? Is there an airport or train station near the college?
  • Do you prefer a commuter school or for most kids to live on campus? 

Would you prefer a large university or a small liberal arts college?

7. Is the Size of this college a good fit?

Often, a student’s high school experience guides them as they choose the size of the university they’d like to attend.

Some prefer a smaller, more intimate college experience than they experienced in high school. Others decide they couldn’t possibly attend a college with fewer students than their high school and seek out a college with a large student body.

A university’s size isn’t just about the number of students on campus—it affects the number of majors and faculty members, the size of the sports facilities, the number of dining areas, and opportunities for leadership or research.

Also, many large universities offer students the opportunity to participate in small cohorts, either in an honors program or in special interest groups or service-oriented groups.

Some students may prefer different learning environments, such as small, discussion-based classes where professors know students’ names and larger lectures where students are more likely to work with a TA.

Professors’ teaching styles and the level of interaction with faculty (or TAs) can also impact college fit.

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a Good size for you:

  • Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond? 
  • Does the school offer lots of opportunities to get involved? 
  • Do you want to have leadership roles?
  • How likely are you to develop relationships with professors? (Sure, larger schools might have more faculty members, but if they also have more students, will those professors know who you are?)
  • Can you do research as an undergrad? Is it easy to do research as an undergrad?
  • Do you want to blend in on campus, or do you want to see someone you know wherever you go?

8. What support is provided at college?

Even for the most prepared high school student, it can be challenging to transition to life as a college student. Colleges and universities with strong orientation programs can help ease the transition in ways that help students feel at home, find friends, and make connections quickly. 

Consider the availability and accessibility of support services, such as academic advising, counseling, career services, and accessibility resources. If you have any specific needs or requirements, ensure that the college can and will accommodate them before you enroll.

questions to ask when considering if a college will Provide You with Enough Support:

  • Has the college done a good job of communicating to you during the admissions process?
  • What is orientation like? 
  • Would you benefit from being part of a living-learning community?
  • What does mentoring look like during freshman year?
  • How much support does each college give their first-year college students?

9. How does the College support your Future Career goals?

Finding the right college fit can benefit you after graduation, as you begin your career or pursue graduate school.

Students are looking at a competitive job market after graduation. Many families believe that the school from which their student graduates will have an impact on students’ future careers and earning potential for the rest of their lives. This may be more true for some careers than for others.

However, if you attend a college where you are comfortable participating in extracurricular activities, can take advantage of research opportunities, and aren’t overwhelmed by student loans, you’ll have an easier time starting your career or going to grad school.

questions to ask when considering if a college will be a good fit with your Future Goals:

  • What’s the graduation rate? 
  • Does the college help students find internship opportunities?
  • Will the college help students get placed into co-ops?
  • What percentage of graduates are employed or in graduate school six months or one year after graduation? 
  • What help can students expect from career services? Resume-writing advice, practice interviews, job fairs, etc.?
  • Does the school have a robust alumni network? Do the school’s alumni help provide networking connections and help with job placement after graduation?
  • What’s the average starting salary of a graduate with your intended major?

Tips for Writing an Amazing College Admissions Essay

Tips for Choosing which college is the best fit for you

While you wait for your acceptance letters, merit scholarship awards, and financial aid offers, keep thinking about what you are looking for in a college.

If you apply early decision to college, you will need to decide early on in the college decision process which college is the best fit for you.

If you are applying regular admission to selective colleges with low acceptance rates, you may be waiting many months between applying for admission and hearing whether you were accepted, rejected, or waitlisted.

When you finally hear all the admissions decisions, you may feel pressured to make a decision quickly.

Here are some tips on how to choose between colleges, so you choose the one that’s the best fit for you.

1. Look at merit and need-based aid offers

Compare your financial aid packages closely. Consider if there are hidden extra costs (transportation, fees, etc).

For some families, the financial fit is the deciding factor. But if students did their research before applying, all the schools on their list should be a good fit in the other areas as well.

For other families, the cost of college may be an important aspect of college fit, but a small difference in cost between schools may not mean they choose the less expensive one.

As you consider each college offer, be realistic about what you and your family can pay for college.

2. Visit your top two or three colleges

Nothing beats a campus visit to get a feel for campus culture. Hopefully you were able to visit, either in person or virtually, before submitting applications. If at all possible, visit the campus on your own or on a visit day for admitted students.

Get a sense of the energy on campus, meet some faculty and staff, and feel the vibe of the student population. Take time to really get a feel for the school.

You should reflect on all the elements of fit noted above, but also pay attention to any gut feelings.

Where do you feel most comfortable? Where do you think you will find like-minded peers? Where will you find the right level of challenge?

3. Don’t get caught up in College rankings

Sure, guidebooks and Top Ten lists can offer insight into different universities, but college rankings don’t tell the whole story. Don’t focus only on a school’s reputation and academic profile.

There are many great colleges that offer fantastic educational opportunities. One of them will be the right fit for you!

Just because you haven’t heard of a college before or don’t know of any one who goes there doesn’t mean it’s not a great school. Its best to approach the college admissions process with an open mind and consider all sorts of colleges and universities.

What matters most is that you find the school that best matches your needs, interests, passions, and goals. A good college fit is about so much more than how a college ranks!

4. Remember, there isn’t only one college that’s the right fit

Hopefully, you will have acceptances from several colleges that will be a good fit for you, and you can choose between them. 

Using the above criteria to choose a college can help you with find your best college fit.

Why does College Fit Matter?

College fit matters significantly when students decide where to go to college. Finding a college that meets a student’s needs, goals, and preferences can have a profound impact on a student’s overall academic success and college experience.

Finding the right college fit makes it more likely that a student:

  • receives a high-quality education in their field of study
  • thrives in the campus culture
  • has access to opportunities and support services they need
  • feels a sense of belonging
  • can afford their education

Basically, when students choose to attend a college that suits them well, they are more likely to be happy, engaged, supported, and academically successful. Finding a great college fit leads to a more fulfilling college experience.

A poor college fit can lead to lower academic performance, dissatisfaction and disengagement, and a greater potential for transferring or dropping out.

Final thoughts on how to know what college is right for you

When it comes to finding the perfect college for you, some of these questions about finding the right college fit may matter more than others to you. All these questions will help you develop the list of colleges and universities you want to apply to.

Your feelings about which college is the right fit for you may change as you go through the college admission process. Your top choice at the beginning of your high school senior year might not be a good match for you after all.

Figuring out how to know what college is best for you can feel overwhelming to many high school students applying for college.

However, it’s so important to invest time and effort in researching colleges to see how well they align with your needs, values, preferences, and goals.

Figuring out what college to go to can be a complex process. Take your time with the decision-making process and consider all the important factors.

Before committing to any college for four years, it’s best to take a comprehensive look at all the elements that go into finding the right college fit so that you can choose a college that’s the right one for you! 

Finding a college that fits you feel really difficult. And if you’re wondering how to find the perfect college, know that you may have to compromise and prioritize.

Thinking about the nine elements of college fit listed in this post can help you see how to know what college is right for you. You can find a university that fits you, where you’ll learn, grow, find friends, and make awesome memories!

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