Whether you think you know your ideal college or have no clue at all, giving it careful thought is essential. You might be surprised to learn how many different ways a college can be "ideal."
You might have heard that there's an "aha" moment when you realize a college is just right for you. That feeling does not arrive out of the blue. It comes after you have explored the many aspects of college life and learned which qualities will support and inspire you during your time on campus.
Why College Fit Is Important
A college that "fits" you will not only support your academic goals but it will also give you a compatible and stimulating physical and social environment. You have a good chance of thriving at such a college and are more likely to stay until you graduate.
Defining a good college fit takes research. Not the kind of research you do for a term paper, but a combination of visiting colleges, talking to people, researching facts, and consulting with your counselor and parents. Eventually, you will know enough to recognize a good college fit when you find it. Bear in mind that there is probably no one perfect college. In fact, there are likely to be more than a few colleges that will suit you well.
In the end, of course, a college is not just a bunch of factors. Many students report that the moment they realize a college is a good fit, it's as if they have discovered a new home. When all the pieces come together, it's just as much a heartfelt insight as it is a logical decision.
What Makes Colleges Different
As you begin your college search, it is helpful to get acquainted with the many qualities that set colleges apart from each other. Colleges vary dramatically in terms of academic rigor and focus, types of students, campus setting, and in many other aspects. You should consider which of those variations will support your goals, suit your personality, and challenge you to grow in new directions. Your ideas will probably change as you find out more about colleges, but engaging in a thoughtful process now will get you off to a good start.
Students go to college for all sorts of reasons, but studying academic subjects comes first. A college can be a wonderful fit in every other way, but if the academic opportunities don't serve your goals, you should keep looking.
Major considerations. Whether or not you are settled on a major could be a factor in your college choice. Many colleges help students choose a major by encouraging academic exploration in the freshman year. If your major is set, a college's strength in that discipline will be a key consideration.
The level of challenge. Ideally you should be stimulated and excited about what you are learning, but not overwhelmed. Sitting in on classes and talking with college students about their studies can help you get a feel for the level of academic rigor that is right for you.
The style of instruction. Think about whether you prefer lectures, hands-on learning experiences, tutorial style instruction, and/or research opportunities. Consider how much interaction you want with instructors and access to full-time faculty. Class size may matter to you. Small classes might work best, or maybe you like the idea of stimulating lectures in large halls.
It's About Your Social Life, Too
Of course, college is not only about studying. Who you spend time with and what you are able to do socially has a big impact on your day-to-day experience on campus.
The social scene. Think about how you like to meet people and socialize. Some colleges are teeming with students and offer lots of activities and events. Others are more like a small town where everybody knows everybody and activities are more informal.
Who's on campus. Consider the types of people you want to meet on campus. Some colleges attract similar types of people while others foster diversity in their student body. Some enroll most students from the surrounding area, while others attract students from other states and countries. Some colleges have more men than women or vice versa. Some colleges attract more serious-minded scholars while others appeal to students who are just as involved in their extracurricular activities as their studies.
Joining in. Also consider what cultural and social activities interest you, such as competitive and recreational sports, clubs, musical and theatrical groups, sororities and fraternities, sporting events, volunteer opportunities, spiritual communities, and student-run media.
The College Personality
Although the iconic image of a college is an expansive quad surrounded by ivy-covered buildings, colleges actually come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, architectural styles, and settings. Visiting campuses, even those you have no plans to attend, can be a big help in sorting out your college personality preferences.
Location and setting. Think about how far from home you are willing to go or whether there are particular locations that appeal to you. Imagine how you might feel in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. Find out how comfortable different campuses feel. Visit those that are expansive and park-like, architecturally modern, urban, or small and cozy. And last but not least, consider the weather.
Size matters. Colleges can feel too small, too big, or just right. Big campuses can feel full of exciting opportunities, with impressive libraries and many academic and recreational options. Or they can feel overwhelming. Smaller campuses can feel friendly, like it will be easy to get to know almost everyone, including your professors. Or they can feel too limited.
Life on and off campus. While you are not going to live in a palace, the dorms should feel safe, comfortable, and appealing. Where people live after freshman year can matter too. Lots of students living off-campus can drain the on-campus vitality, or create a thriving off-campus scene in the surrounding community. Other factors to consider include transportation options on and off campus, security, and the condition of the campus grounds and buildings.
A college should help you graduate with the results you want, from launching your career to keeping college debt at manageable levels.
Retention and graduation rates. High retention rates, meaning the number of students who return from year to year, indicate that students are probably happy with the campus. A high four-year graduation rate means students can get into the classes they need and thus avoid the expense of taking additional years to graduate. You can use CollegeData's College Match to look up these statistics at specific colleges.
Affordable cost. Knowing that your family can afford to pay for a college is an important consideration in your college choice. Look at colleges' track records of providing grants and scholarships and meeting financial need. Use CollegeData's Net Price Calculator to figure what a college might actually cost your family. Consider how much you are willing to borrow to pay for a college that costs more than you can pay out of pocket.
Career assistance. Most colleges provide statistics showing how many graduates go on to graduate school or a job in their chosen field within a reasonable amount of time. Signs of job and career assistance while you are in school include programs that support internships, service learning, and co-op assignments.
Going from Ideal to Real
With a clearer understanding of the factors you need to succeed at college, you are well on your way to finding a school that's right for you. As a next step, try to visit a few colleges, even local ones, to experience what they are like and test your ideas with some real campus experiences.