Sometimes when it comes to college admissions, families put the cart before the horse: students get their heart set on being accepted to a particular school, then try to fashion themselves in the image of that school.
Letting the horse pull the cart is clearly the much more effective approach: students should pursue excellence in their studies and activities, and seek to build a personal narrative around what gives their lives context and meaning. From there, the college process becomes about finding a school that is the right fit for the person they are becoming.
Working from this perspective ultimately leads to happier students, because they are matriculating in universities with the resources and environment to fuel their personal growth. It also leads to better college admissions outcomes: if a student is truly a good fit for a school, that school is much more likely to accept the student.
We’d like to share an interview from the fall of 2017 between Signet’s CEO, Jay Bacrania, and one of Signet’s team members that digs into the idea of “fit”. Valerie Marchand is a former admissions officer and college counselor, and she brings both depth and perspective to the question of what fit really means.
How do you define fit for students in the college process? What does it look like from a student's perspective?
Fit is admittedly a hard thing to try to describe for a student. If you do a Google search you’ll find some standard advice out there, but I think it’s only when a student starts stepping onto campuses that they fully realize what fit means. From a student’s perspective, fit is a collection of the factors that give a college its own unique character.
Some of these factors are tangible and easy to understand (i.e. an urban campus vs. a rural one). Others are more challenging to explain (i.e. the energy on campus during the academic year), but are definitely an important part of the college experience.
Students should be assessing schools for qualities such as:
- geographic location
- rural vs. urban campus
- proximity to home
- type of school
- size of school
- academic programs and majors available
- sports and other traditions
- energy or vibe on campus
I always tell families that while the colleges in your local area might not be the schools your student wants to go to, it’s wise to use your backyard to get a sense of what various kinds of college campuses feel like. Check out a large public university, a tech institution, and a small private school (provided they’re nearby); these “college types” will give your student lots of information about what specifically they’re looking for in a college that’s a good fit.
Keep in mind that parents and students may not always agree on these factors (particularly distance from home!) and that’s okay. These visits can be useful in opening up a bigger conversation within families about how to balance students’ desires with parental realities (including financial situations and affordability).
What does fit look like from a college's perspective? How do admissions officers define fit?
Colleges are looking for students who reflect what the school wants in its community and in its classrooms. Every school, and often each department within each school, has its own goals and values that direct admissions officers and help them determine which students would be a good fit.
Summer is when schools and individual departments are defining their priorities and goals for the following year. Although admissions officers have some flexibility to present candidates they think are a good match, there is a structure provided to them that comes from above. Grades and test scores that match the expectations of the school are usually a requirement, especially for selective colleges.
Honestly, it can sometimes be difficult for students to know what’s going on inside departments, even if they have done significant research on the school. A department may be in the middle of shifting what they’re looking for in students, and in that case the current student population wouldn’t necessarily reflect the direction admissions is heading.
If colleges are making the right decisions for themselves and the students, then they are making the best decisions for everybody. The school may have greater insight than a student, for example, about the course of a particular academic program. While a student might think the program is a great fit, someone more familiar with the curriculum might realize that the program is actually too rigorous or challenging for that student, based on their transcripts. For many colleges, it’s not just about overall fit, it’s about fitting students into a specific department as well.
You talked a bit about how colleges self-identify what would be a good fit, and how sometimes there are considerations students won’t be aware of. Can you describe some ways students actually can tune in to what colleges are looking for in terms of fit?
Absolutely. There are several ways students can do this:
Listen to the admissions officer’s spiel. Admissions officers are trained to talk about specific outcomes for students who attend their schools, and to emphasize specific qualities or characteristics that embody the mission and values of their college. Students who are listening closely will be able to read between the lines to see how the school identifies itself. These talks are often short, given at job fairs with a lot of students and limited time, so admissions officers tend to be fairly direct about what they’re looking for in order to attract students who are a good fit to submit applications.
Look to alumni examples. When a college gives presentations or sends out promotional materials, they often highlight alumni profiles to show the value of getting an education from their institution. The examples they choose to promote can indicate to students what the school’s values are, what they’re most proud of, and why. That might trigger a continuing conversation that a student can have with the school (see below). A student might point to the examples provided and ask “Are you looking for more students like this? Why was this student important to your university?” in order to learn more.
Reach out via email or phone. It can be really challenging to have in-depth conversations at college fairs, because admissions officers are totally swamped. However, a student can definitely reach out with questions over email (to that officer or the office in general). Officers are often too busy to meet with students when they are visiting campus, but finding ways to engage with current students can be an avenue for asking these kinds of questions as well, and students often work in admissions offices answering phones.
Use student or department blogs. Admissions offices often publish regular blogs, some by staff and some by students. Your student can learn plenty about academics, campus life, extracurricular activities, sports, and even specific departments through these posts. Blogs provide a great window into the experience of life at that college, and also demonstrate what’s important to the students and the school itself.
All of this information can also help students write strong supplemental essays that demonstrate they’ve done their due diligence and homework on the college, beyond a campus visit and looking through the website.
When you were reading applications, what were some specific ways you assessed fit?
I’ve alluded to this, but the two main aspects we looked for were academic fit and cultural/values fit.
Academic Fit: The obvious part of academic fit is whether a student’s grades or test scores match up with what the college expects its applicants to have. But academic fit can also be more subtle. A student might be applying for an engineering program, but the admissions office, who knows the curriculum, can see that the student doesn’t have the right science path to be successful. Maybe they needed a higher level of physics in high school in order to be on track with the other college freshmen. It’s not the student’s fault that they either didn’t have this information or didn’t fulfill these requirements. Not being the right fit doesn’t mean anything about a particular student or their abilities, it just means that the school is not certain the student will be academically successful in their programs.
Cultural/Values Fit: A university often wants its students to engage in their community in a particular way, and the individual student’s goals may not fit in with that vision. If a student is articulating similar values to the ones the college holds, that will resonate with an admissions committee. If they talk about taking specific skills from their degree and how they will use their education, that may or may not align with the values of the department or university. If it aligns, that’s a good fit.
If a school wants students to use their business education to make an impact on the community, but the student is highly focused on entrepreneurial spirit, those values don’t necessarily match up. One is not better than the other, but the student will be a better fit with a school that values entrepreneurial spirit. Admissions officers learn a lot from how a student talks about what they’re interested in, what they’ve done, and how they describe their ambitions and goals. Students definitely should talk about their interests in really specific ways, whether those are academic, extracurricular, or community-minded; both colleges and students benefit from finding the right fit.
Can you give us an example of a great fit student?
A student who is a great fit offers specific details of their experiences and what they are looking for that resonate with what the school wants. When a student is deeply passionate about a school, that shines through in every aspect of an application.
I have definitely read applications where the student fit what the school was looking for in terms of transcript, great teacher recommendations that show engagement, etc., but they didn’t do anything to distinguish themselves. Many students meet those qualifications, and in those cases we use essays and personal statements to understand who would be the best fit. Without repeating what was on the website or seeming like they were giving us what we wanted to hear, certain students told us through their own eyes how they saw themselves on campus, in a way that matched with the things they had been involved with during high school. Maybe there was a specific professor they had come across who connected with an internship that they had during high school. Those connections were the most powerful and made the biggest impact.
I talk to students who tell me they’re really passionate about a school, that it’s their top choice, but their essay focuses on the college’s location or what they’ve heard about the school. The passion doesn’t come through. They’re not proving it. We often ask “Where’s the proof?” or “So what?” In order to admit a student, I need to know why I should care about the story they are telling me.
Can you give us an example of a student who might be a good student but a bad fit for a school?
Parents often look up a college’s stats (GPA, scores, students’ background) and think, “My student had these qualifiers or exceeded them, why weren’t they accepted?” It can definitely feel like the idea of “fit” moves the needle to things that families can’t see or fully grasp about admissions.
It can actually be heartbreaking to read through an application where you know how amazing a student is—great grades, excellent teacher recommendations, and they’ve really thrown themselves into the application—but at a certain point the school can only admit so many students. Sometimes students have done everything right, all the things that they possibly could, but their application is just not meeting something that the university is looking for. In that case the student might be denied or deferred. Those cases are the most difficult for an admissions officer, especially if they have communicated or developed a relationship with that student along the way.
What are some specifics about what makes a great student not a great fit?
School lacks appropriate resources. Maybe the university doesn’t have the resources to support a particular student to help them be successful.
Student mistakes. A student might make mistakes in an essay, e.g. mentioning a different school, or a program or building that doesn’t exist. In highly selective admissions, every little thing counts.
Misunderstanding what admissions officers want. Sometimes students fail to highlight themselves in the right way. They have trouble identifying the things that admissions officers actually care about, such as working a part-time job or caring for younger siblings after school. Admissions officers want to know about those things, but students often hide them!
Not giving a good sense of who they are. As far as personality, we might look at an application and say we don’t have a good sense of who this student is. If we don’t understand how they relate to their community or their peers, it might be risky to invite them to campus.
When it comes to choosing between top students, how does fit play into an admissions officer’s decisions?
Fitting in, academically and culturally, with the programs and values of the school is one of the most important things for a student in the admissions process, especially in highly selective admissions offices. Demonstrated interest from the student also comes up a lot for admissions officers. It’s not exactly the same thing as fit, but it shows that the applicant knows they are a fit for us and would connect with our students. We’re looking for people who will be a great roommate, lab partner, sports team member, etc.
Ultimately, how can students tune into what might be a good fit school for them?
College visits are really critical. Talk to students on campus during the visit to get a sense of the student population. Stop someone to ask them for directions or to strike up a conversation. It’s important for high schoolers to note how they connect with the people on campus. Visiting classrooms is also a great way to understand what the academic environment and experience is like. Are the students asking questions, engaged or laid back, does the environment feel appealing?
I worked with a student whose first test anytime she went on a college visit was to take a run on campus. She put on her tennis shoes and headed out, and she noticed how many people said hi to her, what was happening in different places, and how she herself connected to the campus. When students get off the beaten path a bit, they can discover a lot about what “real life” at that particular college would be like.
Valerie Marchand is a former admissions officer and college counselor. She has a B.A. in a French with a concentration in International Business from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a M.A. in Intercultural Relations from Lesley University. Valerie has worked as an Associate Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently the Director of College Counseling at an independent school in Pennsylvania.