Imagine buying an expensive pair of shoes without ever trying them on. Would you simply look at a shoe on someone’s foot and immediately order it in same color and size without ever checking to see if it looked good on you or even fit you? Of course you wouldn’t. Yet so many students choose the colleges to which they will apply in this way, making their college list up only from schools with high magazine rankings and favorable popularity scores. If we chose our shoes in such a haphazard way, we would surely end the day limping, with squished toes and blisters, no longer enamored by our looks but instead wishing that we had done a better job evaluating the fit. I often see students and families who are overwhelmed by the prospect of shopping for a college, but shopping is exactly what must be done. Of course there are thousands of accredited 4-year colleges to choose from: 80 in Canada, 300 in the UK and more than 3,000 in the United States. In addition, there are numerous wonderful academic institutions in the rest of the world. Such a wide array of choice is mind-boggling. How can one possibly know which college is the right one?
More than Excellent Grades and Test Scores
Colleges have very different personalities. The location, the size, the academic competitiveness of their student bodies, the school’s history and the attributes the school considers to be the most desirable in their students all converge to create highly unique education and living environments. The question for most colleges and universities is not so much whether applicants are academically qualified, that is easy to see, but rather whether or not they fit into the unique environment so lovingly constructed and painstakingly maintained by the university. Research shows that despite the dramatic rise in applications in recent years, admissions personnel from a wide range of colleges estimate that 80%-85% of the applications they receive are from academically well-qualified candidates. 1 In real terms, this means that of Harvard’s 34,000+ applicants last year, 28,900 of them would fit the academic profile of admits (3.8 GPA and combined SAT scores ranging between 2070-2320). As only 2,032 students were admitted, 26,860+ students were necessarily rejected. 2 This example is given to highlight the fact that grades and scores only determine the range of colleges and universities at which the student is academically competitive. Grades and scores don’t, however, determine who gets in because the entire pool of applicants is equally highly qualified. This is where FIT comes in and it is the reason students get admitted to or rejected from certain colleges. Increasingly, colleges all over the world want more than just smart students. They want students with a wide array of talents and abilities. They certainly accept candidates who play the violin brilliantly, but they also want people who are talented accordion or tuba players. They want students who participated in student government, but they also want theatrical students and students who ran their own businesses, saved puppies or knitted sweaters. There is no formula or preference for what students should do; the preference is only that they DO something for which they have a passion for in a meaningful way. So what makes the difference? FIT! To begin with, fit has two sides. The student needs to know that the college fits his/her personal criteria for a good college for them and the admissions office must feel that the student is a good fit for the college. The process begins with the student asking the right questions. “Which colleges are the best ones for me?” NOT “Which are the best colleges?” The second question is generic and is completely unrelated to who a student is as an individual. Fit is largely about research. First there is self-research. Students need to know who they are, what their interests are, what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they best learn. Other critical questions are specific to a particular college, such as where is it located? Is it in a big city? Is it suburban or rural? If it is rural, how long will it take to get to the closest big city? What is the general teaching style? Are classes lecture-based or discussion-based? How many students are there in most classes? In a US college the number of students could be 700 or 20. Students need to think about what they want to do and how they want to feel in a college. There is even thinking to do before a student decides which country they may want to study in, and of course they may need to consider how certain they are about a field of study or major. After all, in some systems such as those in the UK and France, students apply for a specific college within a given university. Switching is not an option unless the student is willing to withdraw and reapply to another college. Then there is work to be done even after the student answers the questions about who they are and what they want. After these questions are somewhat clearer, the student needs to determine which of the colleges they are considering actually fit their criteria. From here, the research process becomes one that helps the student to narrow down his or her choices from a general list of dozens to a list of 8-10 excellent choices. In addition to research based on reading college websites and brochures, students should do additional online research to read comments by current students. They would also benefit from talking to current and recent graduates about life on campus, student teacher-relations and other topics of interest. Under optimal circumstances, students will visit the colleges they are most seriously considering while classes are in session (October holidays and Chinese New Year are optimal times to visit campuses while they are bustling with real college life as it will give prospective students a better idea of what it might actually be like to live on campus). There is simply no substitute for walking on campus, attending admission sessions, sitting through a class or two and hanging out for a day to feel things out and to see if the student can picture themselves on a particular campus for four years. College visits can also be critical opportunities to interview with admissions personnel, ask questions not found on the website and transform oneself from just another applicant into a known individual. Central to improving one’s chances in the admission pool is convincing the admissions team that the student is an ideal candidate. This information comes through in the student’s application, personal statement and answers to the all-important supplement questions. The more intimate the knowledge a candidate has about the college, the more convincing he/she will be able to be in answering why they want to attend. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point, especially at the more highly selective liberal arts colleges. Obviously determining fit takes significant time and work, so starting earlier than senior year is optimal. Learning about and thinking about this process as early as freshman or sophomore year (US Grades 9/10, UK Year 10/11) gives students the time needed to consider the questions central to who they are, what they want to do and which colleges they might be best suited for. It also gives them the time they need to get themselves in better shape for admissions to a highly selective college if that is what they choose to pursue. And as any good shoe shopper knows, the more time spent trying on the shoe, the better the fit will be!