When students start putting together the list of colleges they are considering, they have to grapple with the concept of “fit.” What does that mean? It is not enough to take a look at a college or university’s rankings on US News & World Report or other such rankings websites. There are over 3,500 colleges and universities in the United States. With so many choices, students have to gauge whether the specific institutions they are interested in attending are the “right fit” for them. And they also have to consider if they “fit” the requirements of the university they intend to apply to?

Coming up with the colleges/universities that are best suited to meet a student’s needs is a very important part of the college admissions process. The idea is to find a list of ideal colleges that fit the student and will allow her/him to thrive for the next four years of her/his life. The list should be created after the student has done some reflection about themselves. They should be able to articulate —

  1. Why do you want to go to college? Is there a true desire to learn?
  2. What do you see as your outcomes from getting a college education?
  3. Are you committed to being a student? To academics on a college campus?
  4. Will you be ready to go to college right after graduation? Do you think you want to take a gap year? Or start at community college?
  5. Do you understand that college is an investment?

Once the student begins this self-reflection, then there are factors s/he has to consider which will identify the specific characteristics the student seeks in the colleges. The qualities and characteristics of universities/colleges can be delineated into four categories. Students should use their responses and reactions to the characteristics mentioned in the four categories listed below to put together their “right fit” college lists.

1. Academics — The academic environment of a college/university is critical in determining if the university is the right fit for the student and vice versa.

Determine your priorities with respect to academics–

  • What type of academic pressures are you comfortable with? Do you do better when your peers challenge you to be your best? Or do you prefer a more relaxed learning environment?
  • What about class sizes?  Do you learn better in a smaller classroom? Can you handle big lecture halls?
  • Do you prefer to work alone? Are you comfortable collaborating and working on group projects?
  • Is interaction with your teachers important to you?
  • Do you learn better when you have hands-on learning opportunities?
  • Do you need access to certain accommodations to be successful?

2. The Social Scene — The social scene varies from campus to campus so it is important to figure out what type of environment you need to be comfortable and feel at home. In terms of evaluating this, ask yourself –

  • Do you have a small group of friends you are really close to? Or do you have a large group of friends?
  • Do you need to see familiar faces throughout your school day? At a large university that may not be possible.
  • What traits do you want to see in your fellow classmates on your college campus? Identify the characteristics you want in your fellow students.
  • Do you want to go to a school with a lot of spirit? Big sports teams?
  • Is Greek life important to you?
  • What about diversity? Is ethnic diversity, the religious nature of the school, international student population something you want to consider?
  • Do you want to be part of a more religious university? What about a single-sex institution?
  • Including athletic opportunities, what other extracurricular activities would you like to see being offered on campus? Fun clubs, professional clubs, arts, music etc.?

Go through the list of characteristics to see what you need to see in a college campus to make you feel like you belong there.

3. Location of the University — This is an important factor to consider when you are trying to put together a college list because it is a huge part of the college experience. The location factor encompasses many different concepts —

  • How far away from home do you want to go?  Do you want to be within driving distance? If so, how far?
  • In-state or out-of-state?
  • What about flight times? Direct or multiple flights? You should research how you get to and from the university. If you have to fly, how far is it from the airport to your university? What transportation options are available to get me to campus?
  • What about the weather? Check a year-round calendar to see what the typical weather for the area is?
  • Do you want to be in an urban or a rural area? Or something in between?
  • Do you want a true campus setting?

4. Your Family’s Financial Situation Before you embark on trying to find colleges for your list, it is important for the family to have a frank discussion about the role that the cost of a college education will play in deciding what colleges the student can apply to. The family has to figure out whether the amount of financial aid they will be awarded is a significant or overarching factor that will affect whether the student can accept an offer of admission. Please take a look at the financial aid presentation on my website to learn more about how the financial aid process works.

Closing Advice

When you are putting together a college list, do not just focus on the name recognition of the school. It is important to figure out if the university is the right school for you. Reflect on what is important to you based on some of the characteristics described above and create a checklist for yourself. After your research of the universities on your list, you should be able to describe what the ideal colleges or universities provide in terms of academics, social experiences, and location and why you think they are the right fit universities for you. A thorough self-reflection and time spent researching universities should lead you to a place where you will thrive as you begin the next phase of your life.

@Copyright 2020 The Summit College Counseling, LLC


When I create college lists, I take into account the student’s needs as well as the family’s financial needs. If you need help creating a college list or with any other part of the college application process, please contact me.