Finding the Right College Fit: Campus Culture, Size, and Location

During the course of your college search, you will be asked what the right college fit is for you. What are the characteristics you want in a college? Should it be big or small? Within 3 hours of home or across the country? In a city or out in the country?

The real question, however, is how are you supposed to know the answers to these questions?

Many 16- and 17-year-olds beginning the college search process don’t have an opinion on some of these subjects yet. So, where should they really start?

A person holding and pointing at a paper map.

Determining what is important to you in college fit

Start with what you know.

If you know of even one variable that is important for you in a college, start with that. Let’s say you know that you want a college to have environmental science or creative writing majors, a theater group that produces musicals in which non-theater majors can participate, or a student body of fewer than 10,000 students. Any of these variables alone is enough to get you started.

Generate a preliminary list of schools based on what you know is important to you, let’s say a major in environmental science. Using a college search tool like College Raptor, create a list of schools with this major.

Deciding what “feels right” about certain colleges

Next, take this list and start researching other schools via their websites. What other factors are emerging that appeal to you? You may find a characteristic that is important enough to become a key piece of your college search.

Pick just a few schools to visit and when you’re on campus, you may start to identify the other factors that intrigue you. You can then re-run your list, adding not only your major, but also any other factors that you’ve discovered as well.

Of the research/visits you’ve done, you might decide that schools with over 10,000 students are too big, so you eliminate them. The more time you spend researching and doing actual or virtual tours, the more you will be able to begin to discern your likes and dislikes.

Don’t make this mistake when looking for the right college fit

The good news is that in the early stages of your college search, you don’t have to know everything.

The bad news is that it’s all too easy to start to cross certain colleges off your list without giving them a fair shake. Even if you start with a clear picture of what you want–a small school, for example–at least give a large school a chance, just in case you change your mind.

Think of it like being asked if you like Costa Rican food. You’ve never tried it, so how could you possibly know if you like it? The only way to know if it’s palatable to you is to sample it. Like new foods, you can try out different elements of college life by visiting campuses, sitting in on classes, participating in an overnight trip, or talking to students. This is much too important to throw caution to the wind and hope you’ve guessed correctly.

Don’t spend time worrying about what you don’t know yet. Start with what you have articulated as variables that are important to you, find the schools that meet those criteria and begin your search there. You’ll discover what you like and don’t like as you examine and visit colleges.

You’ll be amazed at the progress you can make once you’ve taken the first step!