Dear Dr. LaScala,
We always hear about colleges being the "right fit" or a "good match" for a student. What are specific and concrete ways we can help our son (and us) figure out what colleges will be right for him to apply to. He is already a senior and we are getting a late start.
The concept of "fit" in college admissions has penetrated our communities to the point that the term has become less meaningful due to overuse. But to use an old cliché, we should not "throw the baby out with the bath water." By now, most seniors have considered factors such as region (east, west, north, and south) and type of environment (urban, residential, and rural). Seniors should also understand the differences between a small liberal arts college that is more focused on undergraduate teaching, a large research university that often houses several different schools or colleges, and a specialty school like a music conservatory, art institute or military academy. Some liberal arts schools have names that include the word "university" and universities often house a "college of arts and sciences." Nomenclature is less important than the actual mission of the schoolwhich is exactly what you need to know. The response to your question must go beyond the general notions of "fit" and help you to understand how your student needs to focus on the specific information he needs to make informed decisions about where to apply. Readers who are juniors in high school can use these suggestions over the next year. Seniors should focus on them right now because they are critical to their current college search and selection.
Collecting Basic Objective Information:
Often the most difficult part of understanding something is deciding what questions to ask. Here are some important ones:
1. What is the academic profile of the typical freshman and how does your academic profile compare? Here, you are trying to ascertain if the school offers the right amount of challenge for you and assess your chances of admission.
2. What percentage of the freshman class returns for sophomore year? Less than 70% is cause for concern. You want to know why students do not return. Concerned deans, attentive advisors, proper admissions decisions, and strong academic programs should be able to keep rates high.
3. What percentage graduate in 4 years? A 6 year graduation rate is commonly reported, but you should learn the 4 year rate. Also, understand the factors that may influence these rates. A small concern is finding out that many students take a course in the summer quarter following their senior year and are not included in the 4 year graduation rate. A much larger problem is a low 4 year graduation rate linked to students' inability to get into their major classes.
4. What are the class sizes for specific years, required courses, and courses in your major area of interest?
5. What is the composition of the student body?
Examine breakdowns by gender, minority group, and geography. Will you be happy with a student body that is 65% female? What about being one of the few out of state residents in your class? Remember that diversity tells you at least 2 things about a college: the institution is attractive enough to draw students from beyond its own region and offers students the opportunity to learn from each other.
6. Financial aid questions are always important. Carefully research the financial aid options offered by the college.
College Board's 2011 College Handbook is an excellent resource to obtain some of the above information. There are many other resources as well.
Here are some additional factors to consider:
1. How well does the college prepare students for life after graduation?
What percentage of the student body applies to graduate school (professional schools like medical and law as well as masters and doctoral programs)? How many of these are accepted and to which schools? How many and which companies recruit on campus? Which majors are most heavily recruited and into what type of jobs? What is the average salary range for these positions? An active campus Career Counseling and Placement Office will have this type of information.
2. What is there to do for fun?
It is a truism that you learn as much out of the classroom as in it. Whatever college you attend, it is going to be your home for the next 4 years. It is important to know as much as you can about what activities are both on campus and in the surrounding community. If you love rock-climbing, does the athletic center have a wall? Or is there an affordable gym nearby that does? How much of the student body remains on campus over the weekend?
3. What about the campus visit?
It is better to see with your own eyes than rely upon the views of others. The campus visit is the most valuable experience you can have to evaluate a college. You may consider the visit as an educational insurance policy. Visiting can rule out a school or bring much needed passion and sincerity to your college application essay (in particular to the question "Why our college?"). You will have the opportunity to evaluate what students wear, how they live, your reactions to them, the campus and the nearest town or city. Take time to observe and try to do some active participation: attend a class, eat in the cafeteria, visit the library, work out at the gym, and arrange an overnight stay if possible.
Do your homework before you apply to colleges and you will enjoy your college years all the more.
Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops best match 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. Contact her @ (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.