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What's Wrong with The Best Fit College?

Original post made by Doing College on Nov 28, 2011

Hello Dr. LaScala:

My oldest child thought there was something wrong with her because she never felt the magic of finding the "right fit" college. She attended a good university and it took her quite a while to settle in. But settle in she did and now she is very happy with her education and the friendships she formed. My youngest daughter is a junior and I want to help her avoid the disappointment my oldest child felt. Do you have any advice?

~Margaret

Yes, Margaret, I do have some advice for you. Just 18 months ago my youngest daughter, Angela, announced in a distraught voice, "It didn't happened, Mom. I didn't feel any of the colleges we visited was 'the right fit.' What am I going to do now?" She had been offered admission to a few fine US colleges and universities and was uncertain where she wanted to attend. Well-intentioned others assured her that she need not fret,just go and visit the colleges that accepted her, and she would "just know" in fact, in all likelihood she would know the minute she set foot on campus. We had just completed visits to these colleges and Angela was disappointed that the magic had not happened. She was terribly discouraged, and nearly convinced that there was something wrong with her for not recognizing her "best fit" school.

That's when I started to rethink the whole notion of college fit. Clearly, colleges have latched on to the concept of "the right fit" like no other and drench our high school students with glossy guidebooks filled with colorful photos of attractive students holding test tubes in labs or studying under large oak trees on manicured lawns; other photos depict students engaged in sports in gleaming athletic facilities complete with climbing walls, or lounging in new and spacious dorms. Many colleges will assure students that their campus is not too big and not too small; that it is, in fact, just right. as was Goldilocks's porridge in the famous children's tale.

As a college advisor, I am trained to guide students toward discovering colleges that are the best match for them. Yet I find the statement "finding the right fit" to be overused sort of a mantra that we repeat to families as well as to other college counselors to avoid conversations that are more difficult. The mantra stifles opportunities for productive discussions about how to actively help our students move past the obvious factors like national ranking, campus size and region of the country and focus instead on those features of college life that will contribute to student success. And that process involves guiding students toward greater self-awareness.

As I gave this more thought, I also came to grips with the fact that we counselors work with 17-year-olds who are largely unshaped, although certainly full of possibilities and potential. Fixation on fit has been so distorted by the media that it distances our youth from self-awareness. It plays to normal teen feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt by masking them with grandiose visions of college life. All young people want to succeed and find some happiness in their college experience. In order for that to happen a good dose of self-knowledge about what type of college environment best suits them would help.

If the idea of "the perfect fit" preys on teen inexperience and naivete and encourages unrealistic expectations, what can teachers, counselors and parents do to support young people? A parent can start by helping your child to understand that there is no perfect college. Encourage her to think about what type of college environment is likely to suit her learning needs, social style, decision-making skills, maturity and so on. A parent can also point out that college life involves a normal period of adjustment, and the adjustment can be easier or harder depending on how far the student has stretched her comfort zone. Real college life will be filled with good and not so good teachers, exciting relationships and dramatic breakups, cramped freshmen quarters and more spacious sophomore suites where you may make friendships that last a lifetime. We can all help by reinforcing that real university life turns out to be just life, not some romanticized version of it.


Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops well-matched college lists, offers personalized interview and essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds to maximize merit and financial aid awards. Visit www.doingcollege.com; Call (925) 891-4491 or email at elizabeth@doingcollege.com


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