Success next year in college admissions, and success for life, starts with understanding college “fit.” An environment that is right for one student may not be right for another, and the differences between colleges are dramatic. For example, although most students and families would be thrilled to attend MIT or Cornell, both colleges have reputations for high suicide rates. Tragedies, and success, begin when students select colleges.
Identifying college fit requires recognition of the four ways in which a university educates: academics, activities, location, and student body. When considering academics, most people look at a school’s reputation and its rankings. There are dozens of rankings, and they are unreliable. Moreover, a reputation of quality doesn’t mean that the school teaches in ways that a particular student learns. Does a student learn best by listening in a lecture, by reading alone, by “doing” in a lab or internship, or by interacting in small group discussions? Study the school’s website to detect how its particular group of educators has decided to teach the students.
In addition, the vast majority of teenagers are uncertain about their career paths. Consider whether a college requires that students pick their majors immediately, or rather after one or two years. Most students need to learn about their scholastic options before selecting a course of study. Intelligent decisions about majors correlate to on-time graduation, successful job searches, rewarding careers, and happy families.
Students spend much more time outside of class than they do inside a classroom. What do they do with their free time? College activities are more than entertainment or building a resume; they are opportunities to learn. For example, will a journalism student learn more by taking a class in journalism or by working on the school newspaper? At many colleges, truly robust extracurricular activities teach students job skills and lifelong lessons.
What is true in real estate is also important in picking colleges: location, location, location. The college experience will not be the same in Gainesville as it is in NYC. If we could take Georgetown out of Washington and put it in Wichita, would the education be identical? Whether by subtle influence or mature use of local resources, young people are influenced by their surroundings. The greatest influence on students may be the student body itself. No matter how smart the professors may be, students don’t see their teachers more than a few hours each week. On the other hand, students interact with each other all day long. How the student body is created – the diversity profile – affects college learning significantly. At state universities, the vast majority of students come from the same state. At private colleges, students are more diverse and learn from their differences.
Consider also whether the student body is like-minded or intellectually diverse. Although Harvard and MIT are just five minutes apart, their student bodies are worlds apart. MIT is known for math and science, and so their students talk and collaborate about similar things. Harvard students have an unending variety of interests, so they learn from an almost chaotic environment of mental stimulation.
Also consider how the students are grouped, or not. A college environment where students live in dorms is different than when they live in apartments. On college tours, look for “human spaces.” How, and where, do students interact? Look at the layout and plan of the campus. Sidewalks can often be more revealing than buildings.
Finally, be sure to apply to a group of colleges with a blend of selectivity. Students who apply to college with an “all or nothing” strategy often end up with inferior options. Include colleges in your college list with more moderate admissions requirements.