College 101: Part I: Best Fit
By Sonia K. Wagner, Executive Director
SoMD CAN / College Access Network
More and more often our students – our own children – are bombarded with questions like “where are you going to college?”, “what are you going to major in?”, “what’s your reach school, your safety school?”. This seems to place undue pressure on students and doesn’t give them the breathing room to explore options which may not be on the radar of the parent or the student.
Keeping in mind that there is a “best fit” for the student at an institution can help us narrow down the options for our children headed to college. By best fit, we generally mean how the institution fits the student academically, socially, and of course, financially. Working with our students to help them determine a foundation of colleges/universities that “fit” should be a primary goal as parents, educators, advisors. The whole notion of “reach” and “safety” schools is rather bothersome, why not instead identify a school that has that best fit for the student. It would be wrong for us to advise students with low GPAs to “reach” for a Harvard, rather we would want to identify schools where the student fits academically comfortably within or above the mid-50% range of incoming freshman.
Another component of best fit is social fit. By asking specific questions we can help the student determine what his/her preferences are for location, size, atmosphere, and the culture of their type of school. Placing a student in a school of 30,000 when that student does not like crowds or being lost in one would seem to me to be a not-so-good fit. How many students at the institution? Small – under 2,000; Medium – between 2,000 and 15,000; Large – above 15,000. These are real determining factors. The atmosphere and culture of the school can be attributed to their attitudes toward diversity, politics, community outreach, etc. Some students want to be left alone to study and not get involved in the community, whereas other students are so immersed in the college culture that they automatically become a part of the community.
And then there is always the financial fit of an institution. Although students should be very aware of this “fit”, parents are ultimately responsible for determining the right financial fit. Because it is the parent who traditionally holds the purse strings, they are going to decide that “we can’t afford it” or that “this is a possibility”. This decision does not come without much consideration and homework on the part of this team of parent/student and their united pursuit of higher education. . Parents, a word of advice (and yes, I do have an 11th grader – so I’m right there with you): Please do not abandon your child. This is not the time to let the student start making all the hard decisions on their own.
Building a foundation of five or six colleges that FIT the student will be the best time you spend with your child during his/her junior and senior year in high school.
How do you start building a foundation? I could write a whole paper on steps to take, etc.; but instead I’ll just point you in the direction of one website – which is an unbiased assessment – and that is www.collegeboard.com . If your student has taken the PSAT or the SAT, they will have a student id which allows them access to not only their results on these tests, but also to a wide array of tools and resources to start building that foundation of best fit institutions.
Most relevant are the tools to assess the students interests and aptitudes, this will help you narrow down the type of coursework the student will be taking in college. Oh and by the way, most colleges don’t require the student to “declare” a major upon enrollment.
From this website, create a college search specifying the students geographical desires, their institutional type, the students test scores and/or GPA, their academic interests, and other points. The results will reveal a number of colleges/universities that “fit” the student which may have been unknown before this search.
If some of the schools that are revealed are unknown – get to know them. Review their websites and their curriculum for the academic area of interest of the student. If at all possible, visit the campuses, or visit a nearby college/university that has similar traits – just to get a feel for such things as a very large institution or a very small institution. Start comparing these institutions to one another and the result will be a list of foundation schools.
Next installment will be College 101: Part II: How Much Am I Responsible For?