A (College) Match Made in...?
Every college wants you to believe that you were meant for each other. They'll romance you like a high school crush. They’ll treat you to hats, scarves, glossy brochures. Their representatives will woo you at college fairs. They'll get current students to reach out to you, hoping to inspire you with their own experiences. They'll spend millions of dollars persuading you, and tens of thousands of others like you, that their college is your perfect college match.
How do they know? Well, they don't.
If you buy one—or more—college guides, you’ll also be swayed by comments about cutting-edge research facilities, stellar faculty, and the always-important gourmet food.
But hold on a minute. Let’s not forget that you’re not interested in just any old college—no matter how beautiful their brand-new dormitories might be. Step Two of your college search is about coming up with a list of colleges that are a good match for you. That’s right, you specifically. So set aside the glossiness and let’s talk about evaluating your college choices in a way that’s effective.
In Step One of your college search, you created a profile of sorts: the student who’s perfect for some yet-to-be-determined college. Now it’s time to put that profile to use. I’ll show you how I did that with one of my students. Or, if you’d rather move on to the “action steps” portion of this section, you’ll find those below.
Step Two: What's Your College Match?
With the students I coach, I begin the process of finding their college match with two basic questions:
1. What are your financial resources?
2. Do you want to find your college match in a particular region of the country...or, perhaps, the world?
Question #1 determines the types and “tier” of colleges we’ll target.
For example, if resources are limited, we’ll focus our efforts on state schools, schools known for generous financial aid, or schools where the student’s interests/talents are likely to make him/her a candidate that the school is interested in supporting financially. We’ll also include a few aspirational schools for good measure.
If finances are less of a concern, or if a family is prepared to apply for financial aid and to take on loans, that gives more flexibility to the search for the perfect college match.
Which leads us to Question #2: Location.
Many students I work with, especially on the East Coast, tend to be focused on a regional school. They’ll say, “I want something not in my city, but within driving distance of home.” In that case, we’ve already ruled out 30+ states and can narrow our choices further by exploring schools within about a ten-hour radius.
Other students don’t care where their college map might be, location-wise, as long as they’re happy with the school. That was the case with one of my students, who told me that she didn’t want to go abroad, but any school within the US was fair game. That’s when we turned to her personal profile.
This student, we’ll call her Olivia, had noted the following about herself:
• Her college match would be a small-to-medium-sized school. “Nothing below 1000, and nothing above 6000,” she told me.
• Her college match would be competitive, but also creative—one where she could be pushed to do her best, but in an environment that valued individuality and creative thought.
• Her college match would offer opportunities to study abroad. (Olivia loved her history and anthropology classes in high school. But her favorite high school academic experience actually hadn’t happened in the classroom, but in the China exchange she participated in her junior year, when she spent four months as a student in Beijing.)
• Her college match would allow her to tailor her major to her interest in emerging economies. (Or, she said, she’d be happy with a more traditional major if the school had excellent internship opportunities and a helpful alumnae network.)
• Her college match would emphasize "life of the mind" over "party 'til dawn." (She didn’t want to attend a school with a heavy interest in football. She’d had enough of her high school’s obsession with the sport.)
For every student, there are always a few aspects of their profile that “pop,” and I tend to use these to steer my search—at least initially. In Olivia’s case, here are the pieces I focused on:
• Academic departments:
Because of Olivia’s interest in China, and her academic success in history and anthro classes, I focused on schools with strong history, anthropology, and East Asian studies departments.
• Internships and study abroad opportunities:
Because Olivia expressed interest in “real world” experience, I looked for schools that touted their study abroad programs, and their ability to connect students with meaningful internships. Externships are another option that some colleges now offer. Ranging in length from a few days to a few weeks—and in many cases, taking place during a winter or spring break—externships give students on-the-job shadowing opportunities that allow them to see some field of study in its real world application.
• Small class size:
Olivia was all about competitive fused with creative. I could tell she needed an intellectual environment where she’d feel both stimulated and supported. Small class size would be key to that. As would schools that touted vigorous discussions and mentorships with professors.
• Opportunities for learning outside the classroom:
Though Olivia didn’t have much interest in continuing with one of her main activities—debate team—after high school, it seemed to me that she would do well with a campus that offered a robust lecture series and had a variety of issue-centric clubs where Olivia could chat and work with passionate students like herself.
Finding Your College Match: Step-by-Step
As you begin to compile a college list, you’ll want to follow this checklist. Though it’s hardly exhaustive, it’s been extremely effective at helping me build a first-round collection of schools for my students. We’ll talk more about the winnowing process in Steps Three and Four.
Is your family comfortable with debt? Are you looking for a college match that offers a full or partial scholarship? What’s an acceptable price range for the cost of your college education?
Do you plan to live at home while you attend school? Are you interested in staying within your own state? Your own region? How far are you willing to travel for a college that feels like a match?
3. Academic interests:
Almost every college has at least a handful of majors that it touts as its best, or its most popular. That’s not to say you can’t have an awesome experience as a political science major at a school that’s known for its business and accounting programs. But it’s helpful to look at what academic departments are best-regarded at each school, and to compare that to your own interests, when you begin to compile your list.
4. Types of learning environments:
Are you vocal, or reticent? Do you enjoy a heady discussion, or would you rather sit in a big lecture? Do you like duking it out over all things intellectual, or would you rather learn from doing the preparatory work and listening to a professor? Are you a hands-on learner who needs to engage in lab and research work? It’s important to know whether the small class size/intense discussion model is for you, or whether you’re inclined toward relative academic anonymity. Whether you need hands-on learning opportunities or are content sticking with the books. Either way, take note of how each college represents its learning environment and look for the college that matches your personal style.
5. Outside interests:
Are you an athlete? An artist? A musician? A dancer who needs studio facilities, or an activist who wants to continue his/her work with certain organizations? If extracurriculars are what make you who you are, you’ll want to be sure to check out a school’s sports, arts, and club offerings before adding it to your list. While many schools offer similar rosters of intramural sports, arts opportunities, and cultural/political clubs, if you’re looking for something in particular—for example, one of my students wasn’t open to any school that didn’t offer a comedy improv group—you’ll want to identify your college match accordingly.
6. Career-related opportunities:
How important is it that you gain real world experience during your college years? How important is it that you study abroad, or have the option of studying abroad? If real-world experience of some kind is high on your list, you’ll want to be sure your college match not only offers those opportunities, but actively support students in pursuing them.
7. Social dynamics:
Besides her “no football obsessiveness” policy, Olivia was also fairly set against attending a school where fraternities and sororities played a big part in the school’s social life. Additionally, she knew her college match would offer a social life that didn't compel students to flee the campus on the weekends. So look at your profile and see where you stand on the question of a school’s social dynamics. Do you love being in the thick of football games and/or big parties? Would you rather head into a city most weekends and create a social life of your own? Or do you want a campus that provides its students with a range of social activities, so you can relax on the weekends with a variety of social options to choose from?
No matter what your race or background, you’ll probably have at least some feelings about a college’s diversity: racial, economic, cultural, or otherwise. So take note of the way your prospective college match describes itself. What does the race breakdown look like? How many students are there on scholarship? What do students say about the school’s diversity, or how friendly the campus is to people of differing sexualities, cultural backgrounds, races, and so on?
So what should your college match list look like at the end of this step? For most of my students, our initial collection includes about 20-25 potential colleges. But don’t worry: You won’t end up applying to that many. In Step Three, I’ll show you how to take that initial list and to bring even more focus and specificity to it.