What does it mean to find a good “fit” when making a list of colleges to apply to?

Often, “fit” is used to contrast with the strategy of stuffing a college list with the highest ranked schools that are feasible (or sometimes not feasible, outside of fantasyland), or building a list of familiar schools that friends, cousins, etc. have attended.

However, a college that’s a good fit is one that matches you across several dimensions: intellectual, social, geographical, professional, and financial, to name a few.

In this blog post, we want to go in depth about the importance of “fit”. Signet’s CEO & Owner, Jay Bacrania, interviewed Beth Onofry, a former Dartmouth admissions officer and currently a Signet admissions consultant and full-time college counselor. She has thought about fit from both the college’s and the student’s perspective, and she has a lot of wisdom to share.


How do you define “fit” as it relates to students and their college choices?

I use a few different criteria, including academic, personal, and financial factors, to define fit. Within each of those categories, students must figure out what’s right for them. This process involves significant self-reflection. They must look at an institution, see what it has to offer and what it values, and compare that to their own values and those of their family. What do they want out of the college experience? What do they hope to accomplish? What role does financial aid need to play in their choices? The right fit is one that takes all of these factors into consideration.

One of my favorite quotes is “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” You’re not looking for the most selective school, but trying to match up an institution’s values with what your student is looking for in a college.

For some students, focusing on fit can feel like a luxury. They are focused on getting the best job possible, and therefore getting into the best school possible. How do you talk about fit to students and parents who have this mindset?

It’s definitely a challenge. We start by recognizing that parents want what’s best for their children; for many parents that means their kids having several options ahead of them. Students want to be somewhere that honors the hard work they’ve put in thus far, and that offers a fun, interesting, invigorating experience. Each student and family has to reconcile these different points of view.

Many families think of college as a credential, a stamp next to your name or a line on your resume. To some extent, this is true, because there are alumni networks and different opportunities that might become available by attending a certain school. Ultimately, however, college is about the actual experiences students have and create for themselves, and they will have more satisfying experiences if they end up in a school that’s the right fit for them.

Can you elaborate on the process of self-reflection to help students identify the right fit?

Students need to not just think about “who I am,” but “who I want to become.” College is a huge time of growth and expansion. Students should seek out a school that allows for that growth, and provides the right opportunities and support for their individual development. This can be based on areas of interest, kind of community, size of school, or even distance from home.

Self-reflection is one of the most important parts of the college search and admissions process. In order to engage in self-reflection, students must take the time to get to know themselves well. They need to have a sense of what they value and what is important to them, what they’re good at and where there’s room for growth, and what kinds of environments are most supportive for their development. Keeping those things in mind with respect to the schools they’re looking at can be really valuable.

A student may choose a big school because there are a range of opportunities available, or because there is a highly specific program of study they wish to pursue. On the other hand, a student may value the support system that comes from a smaller community, and might prefer to explore different opportunities with a less specific career path in mind.

As an example, a student choosing to study engineering at a large liberal arts college will have a different experience from a student who specifically studies electrical engineering at a technical institution.

What happens when students don’t end up at a school that’s the right fit?

Going somewhere that’s not a good fit is often a tough road. Students don’t have the experiences, exploration, and opportunities that lead to a fulfilling and successful path. I try to help students recognize that there are many different paths that lead to success. Combining what a student is passionate about with a foundation in their field of interest can lead to great career opportunities, and that combination of experiences comes with a school that’s the right fit.

Students with a mismatched fit might end up transferring, because they’re not getting the experience they want in college. Other times, students stay at their original school but struggle through the college experience. This can become a Catch-22, because if students aren’t performing well in a school that’s not the right fit, it can make transferring harder. You need to be doing well enough to present yourself positively to another institution.

Sometimes the fit isn’t an academic issue. The concern could be social or personal, such as not connecting with peers. If a student is getting great grades but is miserable on campus, they are missing out on a huge part of the growth that comes from being in college.

It’s important that parents understand that their child could go to a school with a great brand and a great reputation, and still have it be a setback. We’ve seen a couple of horror stories around fit, where the student has ended up in the wrong place.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen is discrepancy between what students and parents think the student should pursue, and what they’re actually good at. Everyone wants their child to go off and be a doctor; some students will make fantastic doctors, but many won’t. If a family is pushing hard in one direction and doesn’t offer their student the space to explore other options or pursue other areas of interest, it might set them back. They may not be successful in pre-med, say, and that can hold them back, both from medical school and from exploring other avenues where they might be more successful.

Parents need to be aware of who their child is and what they’re interested in. Success comes from pursuing a path of a student’s true interest, rather than a road dictated by their parents.

It would have been hard for my family to have a conversation like this when I was in high school.

It does sound a bit luxurious. I work with a lot of families where financial aid is a big factor. If they’re focused on that, I understand why parents and students might latch on to being a doctor, a lawyer, or in finance. It’s the whole “What do you do with a philosophy major?” idea. Those questions have been around a long time.

We help families see that you could major in philosophy and, one, still go to medical school, or two, pursue a different path that could lead to a lot of success. Part of our role as educators is to help students understand there are many different paths they can take.

Underlying that is the assumption that certain careers or schools will lead to success. As professionals in education, we’ve seen that doing well at something you’re interested in, even at a school not as highly ranked, can be a more meaningful path to success.

I’ve definitely seen that too. Students who end up choosing an honors college at a public university instead of an Ivy League for undergrad may have amazing success, and then attend an Ivy League for grad school—or not! It’s not about the rank of the schools, but about whether they received the support that allowed them to have meaningful career experiences.

I will say that most families do a really good job of rallying behind wherever their student ends up. There are so many great institutions out there, so an open mind is probably the best gift parents can give their child while going through this process.

Do you ever see students becoming too transactional in their college search?

I do. My goal is to help families see that college is not just transactional, but sometimes, no matter what I say, that’s the approach they take. Unfortunately, it makes for a less satisfying experience. One of the challenges we come across is thinking of education too much as a commodity. Education is an investment, but also an experience. It impacts the way you think about everything and teaches you how to be an informed citizen.

Some schools are now catering to families because of that transactional nature. This has some benefits, such as schools strengthening their career services programs, but if they lose sight of the broader purpose of education, schools are actually doing students and families a disservice.

What specific process do you go through to help students find the right fit, especially if they’re overwhelmed by the idea of sifting through thousands of school options?

Every student already has a school experience: their high school one. Students can begin the process by reflecting on what they do and don’t like about their current school experience. That’s a great jumping-off point.

Next, I encourage students to visit a college campus near them, even if they’re not interested in attending that school, to see what their impressions are. Gut reactions are instinctive and valid, especially for teenagers. The next step is unpacking those impressions and figuring out what you liked or didn’t like about the campus, and why. That helps shape the values and factors to consider in the college search.

Students today are lucky because they have some wonderful tools available. As part of the College Board website, Big Future has a search feature that narrows down schools by specific criteria. That can take the search from thousands of schools to maybe 40. From there, students can hopefully make more college visits, though always take what people have to say on campus with a grain of salt. As students see more schools, they can continue to reflect about what they like and don’t like, and refine their criteria and priorities.

It’s also important for students to be able to compromise. They should determine their non-negotiables, and then have a list of preferences where they are willing to compromise if needed. Just like dating, it’s important to “meet” different schools before a student makes a commitment. There may be a school that is clearly the perfect fit for a student, or there may be two or three schools that are equally good fits. Since the admissions office will have some say in whether your student ends up attending their school, having several “good fit” options is important.

We find this process is less daunting in smaller doses. It sounds like you’re suggesting allocating time, space, and energy over a period of time to allow this process to be iterative.

The best way to deal with this process is to start early and avoid a stressful deadline right at the end. I get nervous when students in the fall of their senior year are just starting to ask “What’s the difference between these schools?” I also think it’s detrimental to apply early without being sure they want to attend a certain school. That’s not the purpose of applying early. A lot of families don’t realize you can start the application process before senior year, but we actually suggest that the middle of high school is a good time to start checking things out.

What specifically can families do earlier in high school to start the process without getting swept up in college mania?

At the beginning of high school, take it slow. Encourage students to do their best academically and pursue what they’re interested in. Make sure they are taking challenging courses that are a decent stretch for their abilities.

In the summer before junior year or over breaks during junior year, aim for several college visits. Explore different campuses and take lots of notes. Students should write down their impressions, the pros and cons of the school, and what their gut reactions say about their values and preferences. If you can’t make a lot of school visits, that’s okay! Not every family can. A number of schools offer virtual tours. Choose the sources carefully, but there are some resources online that offer valuable student perspectives.

This process continues even into senior year: the supplemental essay prompts on the college application are reflective of a school’s values. As students write those essays, they can do more research; if a question feels out of left field, maybe the institution is not for them.

If your family started this process late, don’t despair! Winter break of senior year can be a chance for a college visit. Some schools also make visiting opportunities available once students have been admitted. This can help them make the right decision before they show up on campus that first day of freshman year, even if it didn’t inform the application process.

For families with limited time and resources, there are many open-house programs for students with financial barriers. These are most often in the summer before and fall of senior year, so look out for those if students can’t get to schools on their own.

Let’s look at fit now from the school’s perspective. When you read applications as an admissions officer, how did you identify students who would be a good fit?

Every institution has different values, and admissions officers look across different pieces of an application to discern those values. Some schools are good at articulating their values and priorities, while others are more nuanced or unclear. This is what makes the admissions process seem so mysterious to students and their parents.

At my school, we looked for intellectual curiosity. That can be apparent in so many ways, and looks different for each student. Intellectual curiosity is subtly different from academic accomplishment, although many families want to equate the two. We wanted to know what students were curious about, why they chose challenging classes, and whether their activities were in the pursuit of passion or to pad their resumes.

It seems like a lot of the factors you’d pick up aren’t from the student telling you “This is what I like, this is how I feel.”

That’s what can make it so frustrating for students and families. They would love a clear formula, and although there is one to some extent, it’s nuanced. Boiled down, we wanted a sense of authenticity, for students to show genuine curiosity, interest, passion, and pursuit. Students are not walking resumes or SAT scores; they’re living, breathing individuals who will be part of a campus community. Once we understood who they were, then we could evaluate whether they were a good fit for our school, based on what we valued and also what we could offer.

So to be successful, think about finding the places where the school and the student want each other equally.

It’s a process of mutual selection. Another challenge is that sometimes colleges send contradictory messages about what they’re looking for. A rural college in the Midwest may value diversity, but not currently have a hugely diverse campus. So a student who thinks they match the typical student profile may have tons of competition, while the school is searching for students with different backgrounds and experiences. That’s an interesting twist to the whole fit dilemma.

What one thing do you hope students and parents walk away with from this interview?

That this process can be fun! I love helping students find the right fit; that’s why I do what I do. I hope families find joy in this time of exploration and possibility as they help their students find the school that’s the right fit for them.


Beth Onofry is the Deputy Director of Academic Programs and Student Support at the TEAK Fellowship in New York City. The mission of the TEAK Fellowship is to unlock access to outstanding education and transformative experiences for exceptional NYC students, who use these opportunities to change their lives and the world around them. Prior to joining TEAK, Beth worked as Assistant Director and Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College.

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