Finding the Right Fit in a College

By Jeff Selingo

Whenever I speak to high-school students, parents, and their counselors about my book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, one question keeps coming up over and over again: What should we look for in our college search? What makes a “good” college?

As this year’s rising juniors get ready to embark on their college search and rising seniors prepare for the final lap in theirs, I wanted to provide some advice in looking for that elusive “right fit” that comes from my book and 25 years of writing about higher edu­cation and visiting hundreds of campuses.

I’ve identified four ingredients that are critical to spotting a good fit. What’s below doesn’t mean that everything else isn’t impor­tant. But if you’re going to dedicate your time and energy anywhere as you sort through dozens or hundreds of colleges, here’s where I think you should focus your efforts.

  • Find a campus where you’ll swim along with the stream aca­demically, but make sure the school is also pulling you along to the finish line.
    • You want to look for a college where classmates will encourage and challenge you, one that’s a good fit—not a campus where you’ll wash out because you can’t keep up and not one where you’ll have to swim against a stream of students lacking motivation.
    • Pay attention to the retention rate, which measures the per­centage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year. The national average is around 81 percent.
    • Scrutinize graduation rates and see how they compare to pre­dicted rates. Ask for that number to see whether the school is under- or over­performing on what’s expected. S. News & World Report also pub­lishes the predicted rate for many schools in its rankings.
  • Search for schools where you’ll find your community, get to know faculty members, and connect with mentors.
    • Seek out faculty members, coaches, or club advisors during the search whom you might encounter later on as an undergraduate. Ask how they interact with students on a daily basis. Do you sense that they could be a good mentor to you?
    • Don’t look just for the nice dorms and the good food but, rather, the places on and around campus where a student can cultivate life-shaping relationships that often come down to chance. You don’t want to be a spectator to the college experience. You’ll need to take advantage of the relationships that form on your dorm floor and in classrooms and through clubs and activities.
  • Scrutinize campuses for the opportunities they provide for hands-on learning and for landing internships.
    • College is about how you go, not where you go. You want a campus that offers a vibrant array of extracurricular clubs and has a lively buzz around student activities.
    • Ask about the frequency of class projects and how easy it is to join faculty on their research, even as an undergraduate.
    • Even if the campus tour doesn’t go there, visit the career services office or the dean’s office at your school and look for internship listings or places where this year’s undergraduates interned
    • Find campuses that will allow you to pivot. There’s a good chance you’ll change your mind about your major. The U.S. Education Department says that about 30 percent of students switch majors at least once.
  • Calculate the return on your investment.
    • Don’t be seduced by the name brand without thinking about how much you’ll pay.
    • Don’t pick a major based on money. The majors that you think will pay don’t always. Salaries within specific majors vary greatly. For example, the top quarter of earners who major in English make more over their lifetimes than the bottom quarter of chemical engineers.
    • Ask about graduate outcomes, but don’t depend only on the survey of new graduates. Nearly every school does a “first desti­nations” survey, asking their graduates six months after commence­ment if they’re employed or in graduate school. Some col­leges, like American University and Northeastern University, have comprehensive websites that detail job outcomes by major. Also, check out the salary by field information on the U.S. Education Department’s College Score­card.

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Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named among the 100 Notable Books of the year by the New York Times. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also writes a bi-weekly newsletter on all things higher ed called Next, and co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.

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