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Elements of a Good College Fit, Part One: Academics


I recently bought a pair of shoes. I’m hard to fit. I have small feet for a guy (7.5). My feet are pretty wide. And they pronate, or roll in when I walk. Add to the fit issue, I’m pretty picky. Not just any shoe that fits will do. I have to actually like the style, the color, the shape. So finding the right pair of shoes is a chore. It takes time. I have to ask questions. I have to try them on. I have to walk around in them before I put my cold cash on the counter and make my purchase.
So it is with choosing a college.
You have to know what you need. And you have to know what you want.
The elements of a good fit vary from student to student. But we can identify some basics.
In this series of posts, I take a deeper look at the various aspects of a good college fit. Today we focus on academics.
Learning Environment
Some students are excellent independent learners. They need little guidance from their instructors. They can take ideas gleaned from a lecture, and use those to fan the flames of their own intellectual curiosity. They don’t need much hand holding in developing ideas into term papers or independent projects. They are not afraid to approach their peers or their professors with questions or further exploration of course material. They have a good sense of what is important in a subject, and they can marshal their own resources to ensure their own academic success. These students will likely be successful in any academic environment, even large universities with enormous lecture classes. These students are active in their own learning, so the mode of instruction is less important. The passive presentations of lectures and readings may be enough to activate the innate learning impulses of this sort of student.
Other students enjoy learning most when instructors are able to bring the material alive, and to help them tie abstractions to the practicalities of everyday life. These students may not yet have developed their own internal academic compass. They may not be as confident with their basic academic skills. Or they may simply enjoy the higher level of interaction that occurs in smaller classes that require a high degree of participation by both teacher and student.
Thus it is critical to match a student’s learning habits and preferences with the sort of learning environments that exist at different colleges and universities. This is more difficult to extract from students in a short discussion: most students have never really considered why they prefer one teacher to another, or why they are more successful in one class than in another. Most people never give much conscious thought to their own learning.
While some will thrill to the art of a well-crafted lecture by a distinguished professor—and be able to convert that thrill into independent learning. Others, however, simply cannot develop a personal relationship with the material without a personal relationship with the human beings in the classroom. In order to make a recommendation about the appropriate learning environment, then, it’s important to discuss with high school students why some classes are more successful, and to uncover the reasons why others are less so.
Level of Academic Challenge
High schools tend to offer various levels of a course (college prep, honors, AP) to provide various levels of academic challenge to different sorts of students. Some prefer to take courses that challenge them intellectually at the top of their game. Others prefer to coast a bit more. Some seek a cohort of students who are as academically driven (or not) as they are, while others prefer to hang with students who are smarter. Still others prefer to be a big fish in a smaller pond and clear standouts in a less challenging environment.
One of my tests of this issue is my “geek index.” When I visit colleges, I often ask students on campus to rate the general academic vibe on campus on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being over-the-top geeky. I find that students are pretty consistent in assigning a value to their college. My clients, too, are generally very candid about their place on the “geek index.” So, as I learn about both students and colleges, this sort of information can help me identify the academic environments in which a student would feel most comfortable.
Program Offerings and Majors
It’s pretty obvious that finding the right major is important. But I go beyond the student’s first answer, no matter how confident they appear about their choice. The fact is that the vast majority of students change their major at least once in college, and many change two or three times. So as I look for the programs that they want most, I also try to be on the lookout for the sorts of programs that also interest them. For example, a high school junior may tell me confidently that they want to be an architect. But they may also enjoy foreign language and literature. Thus it would not be enough for me to simply list of the schools of architecture: I need to consider which schools also would make it possible to continue that interest in a second language.
A student may or may not change majors; but college is also a time in which students are introduced to academic disciplines they have never had any contact with in high school (aeronautics, social psychology, oceanography, linguistics) that may end up becoming a passion. So while I start with a programs and majors a student identifies as first choice, I also try to tease out what other academic interests the student has. These alternative interests may become a well-spring of electives, a potential minor, or an about-face major alternative down the academic road.
Curricular and Program Structure
Some students simply don’t like to be told what to study, while others feel more comfortable making choices within a more structured, controlled environment. Some have a very good sense of what they want to learn and why. Others are still exploring, and are happy to have at least a bit of guidance to help them make sense of the smorgasbord that is a collegiate course catalog. Fortunately, there is a college to match this preference.
At one extreme are the colleges that make very few demands and impose few—if any—curricular requirements. The curriculum may be completely individualized and tailored to each student’s interests and passions. At the other extreme are the colleges that allow for virtually no choice in what courses students take. And then there is a broad spectrum of colleges and universities that fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

Here again, curriculum structure can be difficult to discuss with high school students, for whom their entire academic experience has been fairly prescribed. Electives have been few and far between, especially compared with that smorgasbord they will encounter in college. In order to make a recommendation, then, one has to measure a student’s academic maturity and ability to make good, future-oriented decisions. While it’s completely fine not to declare a major until the end of the sophomore, students still need to put a plan into place to ensure that they can graduate on time. Students with less self-discipline may be better off in a more structured program, or one that at least has a very strong and personalized system of academic advising.
Academic fit is the single most important factor in choosing a college, in my view. While environment, availability of extracurricular opportunities, and social climate are all also very important, its’ important to keep in mind that students are not choosing a country club or vacation resort. Their primary purpose in college is to get an education—one that suits them best and allows them to achieve their own intellectual and professional goals.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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