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Go with "Fit" not labels!

May 1 is the deadline for students to choose their colleges. Students and families hunch around tables agonizing about their final choice.

The dilemma: Which college should you choose?

college choices dependent on fit

College A, a private liberal arts college, offered a $22,000 merit scholarship, a $5,000 music scholarship, and a $2,000 summer exploration grant. The merit and music scholarships are good for 4 years if grades are decent.

University B didn’t offer any aid, but it’s part of the UC system. Both schools will cost about the same between parent and student contributions, they are economically manageable.

Choices from a student perspective:

University B

University B is better known, it’s part of the UC system. It is near the ocean, a medium sized city, has a college system which makes it akin to a bunch of liberal arts and science colleges hanging out together. The campus has a natural setting, red woods, ravines, ocean views, walking trails, and wild turkeys. I sat in on classes, one a lecture with 300 students where we sat on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs. I thought I’d hate a big lecture, but the professor was engaging and the topic fascinating. Another class was a discussion section with about 35 students, it was a breakout session from another lecture class. I got to see the Chamber Singers rehearse and heard astounding voices from kids who looked just like me, but who could really sing! The music professor drew out the student’s talent by suggesting a change in breath, a straightening of posture, a delicacy of phrasing. Students on campus are friendly and helpful.

Many of the classes are lectures, some of them over 100 students even in the upper division biological sciences. There are around 18,500 students at University B including 1,800 graduate students. The town has about 70,000 people. Not all students graduate in 4 years, sometimes because they change majors, but mostly because they weren’t always able to get classes when they wanted them.

College A

With College A, I usually have to explain where it is and describe it. I get the blank looks when I say it is a liberal arts college in Wisconsin near the Illinois border. If I say Wisconsin only, they usually say oh Madison. No, it’s not Madison aka University of Wisconsin, Madison. It’s College A founded before Wisconsin became a state. People who have heard of it get this funny reminiscent smile and mention a friend or family member who went there. “You do know how cold it gets in the winter?” comes at me repeatedly. When I visited in April it was cold (40s) and raining. The campus sits near the downtown of a small town, population 39,000. There are trees everywhere, old brick buildings, newer glass and concrete structures, grass surrounding everything separated by walkways. Students are laughing and talking, even in the rain as they go between classes. I sat in on classes and did an overnight stay in the dorms. The astronomy class was about exo-planet vulcanism, or volcanoes on other plants. I didn’t understand half of it, but the class had only 15 students and was a mix of discussion and the professor talking. The vast majority of classes are seminar style. Since there are no graduate students, undergraduates have a lot of access to research. The school has 1350 students. All students graduate in 4 years.

Which school is “better” for this student?

University B is recognized nationally, College A is not. Does this matter?

The “label” or recognizability of the school to others is much less important than the fit. Think about it in terms of clothing. Which do you prefer an ill-fitting major fashion brand, or a shirt that makes you feel good? It’s the same with a college. The only way in which schools are “better” than another depends on the quality of the educational experience for the student and whether a school offers academic areas of interest. There are no “better” or “best” schools. There are schools which offer more of what a student needs and wants and schools that provide the level of educational challenge and suitability.

It matters more what a student does at a college than where they go. The school name may get them into the door for a job interview post-college, but what the student did and how they distinguished themselves matters more and more over time.

Things to consider:

  • What is the student’s learning style? Does she prefer lectures and notes followed sometimes by discussions? Does he prefer seminars and discussions where he has to be an active participant? How hard does she want to work, how hard does she want the academic current to be? Does he want to be challenged and pushed, but not overwhelmed? Does she seek our competition?

  • Which school will encourage the student to thrive and grow? Look at the course offerings, are there a lot of classes that sound intriguing? Are there a large number of core requirements in academic areas the student is interested in, or are there too many requirements in topics of little interest? Has she always been one of the brightest most accomplished students in her classes? Does she want to go to a school where every single student is equally accomplished and acclaimed and she relishes the thought of competing to distinguish herself? Does she want to be a smaller fish in a big pond? Is he a bright student who tolerated high school but didn’t find it intellectually stimulating or challenging? Does he dislike competition and want to be surrounded by bright, inquisitive students eager to learn and expand their minds? Does he actually want to see if he can evolve into being a “bigger fish?” Does another student just want to get on with education, get their degree, and go to law or business school?

  • Where would the student feel most comfortable? Does he prefer to be surrounded by 10,000 or 8,000 students, more than he could ever want to know who have school spirit and are eager for school activities? Does she want a smaller environment where she’ll eventually recognize most of the students and will get to know all of her professors?

  • It’s up to the student to take advantage of opportunities. In any case, it is up to the student to get to know their professors, to go to office hours, to seek out tutors or advice. It is up to the student to try out clubs and organizations, to go to events and activities.

  • How much effort does the student expect from the college? Does the student want the school to care for him, and actively reach out or does he want to be left to his own devices? Does he want a school where the professors know who he is and how he thinks? Does he want a school where the professors might push him out of his comfort zone? Does she want to soar through her classes absorbing all knowledge, reaching and forming her own educational goals?

  • How much does location matter? Each student should truthfully assess how much location and weather is a deciding factor. The sun will eventually come out, regardless of how foggy, cloudy, or snowy it is. How important is it to remain in California? Are you limiting yourself because you fear the unknown or do you know what you don’t like or can’t deal with? Surfers have found themselves happy in Central California at the foot of the Sierras. Others crave the sun and will only consider San Diego, Arizona, Texas, or Florida. How much adventure can you handle?

Making the final choice: Ignore the brand or the label and pick the college that works best for you academically, socially, and economically.

Where you go is much less important than what you do while you are in college.

Your life is not determined by where you go to college. What you did, how you learned, who you became in college, what opportunities you took advantage of, the internships and study abroad options, the relationships with professors and students are what start to define who you will become.

Find the best fit, find the college you can reasonably afford, make the decision and breathe easy.

Don’t second guess yourself. Don’t be swayed by what others chose. Pick what seems best for you.

Choose, relax and enjoy your summer.

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