With thousands of colleges and universities to choose from, finding the “perfect” school is a seemingly impossible task for any high school student and their parents.
Many college hopefuls have their eyes set on a particular dream school, while others may feel overwhelmed by endless options varying in size, location, reputation, and expense.
Applying to and gaining acceptance to colleges is daunting enough, let alone deciding where to attend in the fall.
So how exactly do you make the right decision?
Keep in mind that the true secret to college success is not necessarily attending the most selective or prestigious university.
It’s finding the right school for you where you can be your best self. And much like with dating or job-hunting, there is no one-size-fits-all college, but instead, a number of potential great picks for every individual student.
“Good Schools”: Are They a Thing?
When we think of “good schools,” we may think of the most prestigious, most selective, or even the schools with the most successful alums in the field we wish to major in.
Ivy League schools are often the first thing that come to mind when Americans think of “best colleges,” as are a number of small, highly selective, and highly-ranked colleges and universities.
However, if a student decides to attend a school for the perceived prestige alone – ignoring their own gut feelings and instincts about the campus culture and how they’d fit into it – they could very well end up unhappy even among the nation’s “best colleges.”
What is considered “best” is highly subjective.
Are “good schools” really even a thing?
Yes and no.
Student-to-teacher ratio, quality of instructors, retention rate, graduation rate, diversity of courses offered, and quality of housing and student life are all important factors to take into account for any college hopeful.
But what makes a school “good” is up to the individual student and their unique experiences, hopes, and dreams for their life in college.
This also raises the question: do “bad schools” exist?
Certainly, some schools have their share of administrative issues and lack of resources. Those are all things you can usually determine through speaking with current students and doing a little research into what the school offers.
But there is no “bad school,” and what works for one person may not for another, no matter the school’s reputation or price tag.
According to the Department of Education, about 25 percent of all students who start at a four-year public or private institution transfer at some point, regardless of academic quality.
For instance, high school senior Amber might initially decide to attend College A because of its proclaimed prestige, but later, she ends up transferring to State School B for a bigger student body and a more affordable tuition and living situation. For Amber, College A wasn’t a “bad school,” but it wasn’t really a “good fit” for her.
Likewise, Josh might feel pressured to attend State School C because it is affordable and close to home, but knows deep down that the slightly pricier College D is the school where he would have the best quality of life and get the most personal, one-on-one interaction with faculty he admires.
Some students want to be a big fish in a small pond in a sleepy college town, while others crave an exciting city life at large research university with endless opportunities and internship possibilities.
As you can see, there is really no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” school, but rather, a “good college fit” for each person.
What Is College Fit?
Some students describe knowing that a college was right for them after visiting a campus and having a gut feeling that they’ve found their home away from home.
However, that instant love connection doesn’t happen for everyone, and not everyone can feasibly visit every school on their list in person.
If a college has everything you need to succeed and have an enjoyable four years, including a location you like, an atmosphere you find welcoming, a price tag you can afford, and academics that challenge you, it is more than likely a good fit for you.
For some students, location is key.
I wanted a city school that would let me immerse myself in local opportunities, and once I found the University of Pittsburgh, I knew that the variety of courses, programs, and opportunities made Pitt a good fit for me.
Plus, I loved the campus and felt at home while visiting!
I had transferred from a smaller liberal arts college where I also felt challenged, but the size of the school and location made it a “bad fit” for me even though it was a good school.
No matter which way you end up going, rest assured that when it comes to picking a good college, the only “wrong” decision is choosing a school that isn’t a “good fit.”
And don’t stress, because even if you end up choosing “wrong,” transferring is always a perfectly reasonable option!
How to Find the Right College
So, how exactly do you decide on schools that would be a good college fit for you? Start by narrowing down your list to a select number of colleges that you can see yourself succeeding at academically, emotionally, and even spiritually.
With each college on your list, ask yourself questions like:
- Would I be comfortable living in student housing and enjoying the food offered? (This is more important than you might think!)
- Does the school offer my preferred major, a curriculum that I find interesting, and a faculty that inspires me? Spend some time reading about the faculty and their accomplishments, as well as course offerings on the school’s official website. Email current students and ask about their experiences.
- Does the school offer the kind of activities I am interested in and enough of them to keep me busy throughout the week? Are the kinds of clubs, sports, volunteer opportunities and organizations I value represented here?
- Is the school’s location somewhere I can see myself being content living in for all four years? Does the area offer enough things to do that I find enjoyable, and/or internship and job opportunities that I can easily take advantage of? Do I like the climate and weather, and/or could I easily adjust? If religious, are there available centers for worship and/or organizations to join? Does the college’s mission align overall with my moral values?
- Does this school offer solid study abroad programs and would they be easily accessible for me while I’m a student?
- Do I see myself fitting in overall and making friends and connections with the other students who attend this school? If visiting the campus, do I like the students I’ve met? Do they seem friendly, happy, and social?
- Does the school offer solid financial aid packages, merit and need-based scholarships, and/or tuition that I can afford or take out reasonable loans for? Are helpful financial counselors available to me?
- Would I be proud to wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with the school’s logo and someday call myself an alumnus?
There are no right or wrong answers, and you might be surprised to answer “no” to some of these questions regarding a few of your top choices!
Keep in mind that no school will ever be perfect, and college life really is what you make of it.
Keeping all of these questions in mind, however, will help ensure that you have the best experience possible.
Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.
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