Is the perfect college out there waiting for you? Absolutely! But you need to do your research. Get introspective, check your facts, then go out and find it

The right college the right fit: is the perfect college out there waiting for you? Absolutely! But you need to do your research. Get introspective, check your facts, then go out and find it

Nancy Fitzgerald

When it comes to choosing a college, it’s all about you–finding the school at fits who you are and what you want to do with the next four years and beyond.

“It’s so important that you look at what your personal priorities are,” says Kelly Tanabe, coauthor of How to Get Into Any College (Supercollege, 2004). “Develop your own personal college rankings and don’t just rely on what the magazines or your parents or your friends say. Take a good hard look at yourself.”

Your priorities might include a leafy green campus with professors who work closely with students–or a fast-paced urban setting with a constantly changing sea of faces and a wide range of activities. But whatever your priorities are, they’re the starting point for finding exactly the right college for you.

To define your priorities, answer the following questions:


Jamie Heisler, 22, a senior at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri, has never known the meaning of the phrase “stage fright.” She’s been singing, dancing, and acting since she was only four years old. Her goal? To head to New York to be a star on Broadway. So when she looked at colleges, her preference was a school with a strong theater major.

“There are lots of schools with good theater departments,” says Heisler, “and some of them, like NYU, are very prestigious. But the important thing to me was to get stage experience right off the bat.”

So she researched schools near and far from her home in Portland, Oregon, and finally chose William Woods, where she landed the lead role in a play her very first semester.

“Your major should be a primary factor in choosing a college,” says Carol Descak, director of admissions at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. So do your homework. “Talk to faculty, current students, and alumni. Ask what makes the program at one college different from or better than the same program at another school. Ask about special opportunities for research, field placement, internships, and mentoring programs. And take a look at the campus facilities–are the labs, art studios, and so on fully equipped?”

Be sure to think about extracurricular activities, too–college life is about more than just hitting the books. Evan Coughenour, 22, from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, took part in lots of activities when he was in high school, from track and lacrosse to the jazz combo. That was a major consideration when he chose Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was a member of the Whiffenpoofs, an a capella singing group.


This year, nearly 15,000 students paid $65 for the privilege of getting rejected by Princeton University. (Only 1,800 students were offered admission.) So don’t throw your money away. Be realistic about your academic abilities and look for a school that matches them. Before you invest time and money in an application, find out the average GPA and test scores for freshmen, and the percentage of applicants who are accepted. Apply to schools that best fit your academic profile.

“Given the increase in the number of students applying to four-year schools,” says Keith Gramling, director of admissions at Loyola University in New Orleans, “many universities haven’t increased the size of their freshman class [and they have grown even more selective]. A review of a university’s academic profile can tell you if you are a likely fit for that community.”


Some students thrive in an environment that lets them fend for themselves, while others are more comfortable with some handholding, at least during the first year. “If you’re not sure which category you fit into, ask yourself, ‘Do I take the initiative to deal with teachers and administrators, or do I rely on my mom and dad?'” says Kelly Tanabe. Also, talk to college students about the campus style–which may range from laissez-faire to nurturing–and see if it’s a match.

“We go to great efforts to provide a personal touch for students,” says Sara Axelson, associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “Even though we have about 12,000 students on campus, we do everything we can to help students connect with faculty and one another.”

And while every college will provide students with guidance, many stress self-reliance by offering students opportunities to design individualized programs.

Ask yourself, too, how independent you are from your family and friends. Are you really itching to get out of your hometown? Before you pack your bags and cross 10 state lines, think carefully about how far you’re willing to stray from family and how visits back home will affect your finances.

Keep in mind that applying to a school in a distant location may actually increase your chances of acceptance. “Geographic diversity is a prized commodity for a college community,” says Michael Maxey, dean of admissions and financial aid at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, “so a student coming from an underrepresented area can be positive in the admission process.”

Karen Wynholds, 19, ventured all the way across the country, from Cupertino, California, to Adelphi University in Garden City, a few miles east of Manhattan. “I grew up in California,” she explains, “and I started to realize there’s more out there. I saw college as the perfect opportunity to move and try something different.”


Think about what you like and dislike about high school. Are you bored in a tiny school filled with kids you’ve known since kindergarten? Do you love your big, noisy suburban high school?

“I went to the second-largest high school in Oregon,” says Jamie Heisler. “I knew that when I went to college I wanted something different. I wanted to push myself and grow as a person. I didn’t want ‘High School, Part II.'” That’s why she chose a college with about 600 students, small classes, involved faculty members, and classmates who go to all the sporting and cultural events.

Your high school experience can also tell you something about your learning style. When Rachel Emery was at Annville-Cleona High School in Annville, Pennsylvania, she asked questions incessantly–and sometimes got on her teachers’ nerves. “The best way for me to learn is through interaction,” says Emery. Now at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she’s found an environment that fosters her learning style with small, discussion-based classes and an involved faculty.

Some students, though, prefer a different approach to learning–big lecture halls where they soak up the basics and go off to study on their own. To find the college that matches your learning style, ask about average class sizes and if entry-level classes are taught by professors or their teaching assistants. You’ll also need to know how accessible advisors are and if professors offer regular office hours.


This may add a whole new dimension to your college search, as you realistically consider your abilities and decide which schools will be likely to give you a team jersey and tell you when to report for practice. Talk to coaches at your high school and at the colleges you’re interested in, and honestly assess which division school you can play for. You may find that although you’re good enough to get some playing time at a big school, you’re more likely to get an athletic scholarship–and to start your freshman year–at a smaller school.

Often, big universities with high-profile sports teams recruit from among the best high school athletes in the nation. So if you’re an average football player, it’s not realistic to expect to try out for the Notre Dame football team.

“If you’re a student-athlete,” says Mike Frantz, dean of enrollment at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barrre, Pennsylvania, “be honest with yourself and expect the same level of honesty from your potential coach. Discuss what skills you have and what you will need to improve to become an impact player.”

Visit the website of the National Collegiate Athletics Association for more info at


Now that you’ve become an expert on you, it’s time to look at the colleges that fit who you are. Here are some options to consider:

PUBLIC OR PRIVATE? State schools offer lower tuition, especially for residents. According to the College Board, the typical cost of a state university is $5,132, compared with $20,082 for a private college. But private colleges often offer more financial aid, which may reduce the difference.

Be sure, also, to ask about course offerings: with recent budget cutbacks, many state universities schedule fewer sections of required courses. Often, state schools are noted for their large classes, while private colleges tend to offer a more personal approach. But don’t make a decision based on labels–many state schools pride themselves on their personal, “private” atmosphere. “Anytime I had a concern,” says Pat Burke, a graduate of Clarion University, a state school in Pennsylvania, “somebody was there to help me. You can get great guidance at a state university.”

SMALL OR LARGE? Big schools like the University of California at Berkeley, with more than 31,000 undergraduates, offer a limitless array of courses and majors, but the bureaucracy can be daunting and the professors may be unavailable. Small schools generally offer a low student-teacher ratio and plenty of interaction with faculty. But before you make your choice, carefully consider the pros and cons of “small,” “medium,” and “large” schools. The only way to do that is by going on campus visits. (For more on campus tours, turn to page 38.)

URBAN, RURAL, OR SUBURBAN? There are advantages–and disadvantages–to each. In a big city, there are endless things to do that can enrich your college experience–from concerts and art exhibits to shopping and club-hopping. If you’re a nature lover who prefers hiking, kayaking, or cross-country skiing, you might be happier at a school located in the country. Or, if you’re looking for the best of both worlds, you might consider a suburban school with a tree-filled campus and easy access to the city.

CONSIDER OTHER OPTIONS A four-year school may simply not be right for you now. For a look at alternatives, turn to page 16. And always keep an open mind about your choices–that will lead you to the education that is best for you.

Nancy Fitzgerald is a contributing editor at Careers and Colleges.

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