Factors of “Fit” in College Admissions (Part Two of Two): Tips, Tools, and Admission Trends to Keep in Mind when Looking for Best Match Colleges

Factors of “Fit” in College Admissions (Part Two of Two): Tips, Tools, and Admission Trends to Keep in Mind when Looking for Best Match Colleges
Rob Lamb, Director of College Counseling


Finding a good “fit” in a college may for a wide range of students mean applying to the local community college or state university, seeking affordable options for higher education to maximize career opportunities and placements and/or getting vocational-technical training perhaps. There are many variables to weigh in decisions about educational attainment beyond high school and the geographic and financial sides of the equation often take precedence. For those whose goals for college include attending an elite, well-known institution, and for whom remote locations and high tuition costs are not prohibitive, there are a host of factors to consider in the search and selection of best matches. As I shared in my last Spotlight article on the importance of campus visits in assessing fit, college applicants dial in these matches by honing and owning their key criteria and preferences, a process of calibrating their SCALES, if you will, in order to find the right niche or range of good fit schools (see slide below for more details).

For all intents and purposes, a good college fit is not limited to a single school. We know this intuitively but often short-cut the search or default to simplistic standards, like college rankings, that rely on questionable methodologies and reinforce narrow perceptions of the “best” institutions. Best for whom and at what risk or cost? These questions are addressed in A “FIT” OVER RANKINGS, a white paper by Challenge Success, a Stanford-based educational research center that has supported Sage Ridge and many other schools with dynamic resources and expertise to help students think critically about their educational paths, goals, identities, and reasons for going to college. Here are some key points from their research findings and report summary:

Interestingly, on a related note, the U.S. News & World Report rankings system has been under more intense scrutiny lately and the subject of criticism from highly-ranked elite institutions themselves, as these news articles illustrate:

So, what is best for our students in this (hopefully) educational process of applying to college? Each year I work with many qualified students who are seeking admission to the most selective colleges in the country, and many get into them because they are truly outstanding, sometimes even exceptional students and deeply engaged members of our community. This commitment and sense of belonging to the Sage Ridge community carries much weight in the college admissions process because it reflects the cultivation of authentic, purposeful relationships and soft skills that colleges value in applicants, sometimes as much as if not more than excellent grades and ACT/SAT scores. After all, admissions officers want to know what unique qualities, talents, and interests applicants will bring to their campuses and how they plan to use and build on these in their four years as undergraduates. 

As noted by the "Colleges That Change Lives" brand of small, liberal arts colleges around the country, “Choosing a college because your friends are going there or because of where it ranks on a list does not take into account who you are and who you will become. College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won. Finding a good fit requires time and introspection” (ChangingLivesBrochure.2020.pdf). In the same vein, here are a few relevant “Student Guidelines” from The Education Conservancy, an educational think-tank based in Portland, OR, in their flier We Admit--Guidance From Those Who Do:

  • Be deliberate! Applying to college involves thoughtful research to determine distinctions among colleges, as well as careful self-examination to identify your interests, learning style and other criteria. Plan to make well-considered applications to the most suitable colleges. This is often referred to as “making good matches.”

  • Be realistic and trust your instincts! Choosing a college is an important process, but not a life or death decision. Since there are limits to what you can know about colleges and about yourself, you should allow yourself to do educated guesswork.

Educated guesswork may seem anathema to those data-driven applicants who want to increase their chances of admission by any and all (legal) means possible. But in reality much lies outside of an applicant’s control in the process, especially when applying for admission to institutions with acceptance rates below twenty, ten, or even five percent. How will Dartmouth shape their next freshman class? Is Yale looking to replace violinists in their orchestra this year? Which specific types of applicants will Brown, Harvard, and Princeton need to enroll for their new pre-professional programs? In that sense “fit” may seem somewhat fickle, dependent upon unknown institutional priorities and variables, and even the best applicants may feel like they are facing slim odds of gaining admission offers. How do they navigate these waters of hyper selective applicant pools to stand out and match with appropriate colleges?

Two of the best college guides I frequently share and recommend to students and parents are The Fiske Guide to Colleges and The Hidden Ivies, 3rd Edition. The Hidden Ivies provides an in-depth look inside sixty-three renowned private colleges and universities, which offer students a broad liberal arts education to help them build a strong foundation for the rest of their lives. Both guides have detailed school profiles that shed light on what each school is really like—from academics to social life and more, including apt quotes from students and faculty. The Fiske Guide also includes note-taking and list-building tools that let students personalize and organize their college search as well as lists of each school’s major competitors (i.e., “overlaps”) that broaden the scope of the college search. Fiske's Sizing-Yourself-Up Survey, for example, is a quick and easy way for students to gauge the relative importance of institutional size, location, and academics and extracurriculars: “Picking a college is not an exact science. People who are total opposites can be equally happy at the same college. Nevertheless, particular types tend to do better at some colleges than others. Each item in the survey is designed to test your feelings on an important issue related to college selection… Taken together, your responses may help you construct a tentative blueprint for your college search.”

It can be helpful to think of finding the right college fit as a kind of “dating” experience, where applicants are actively trying to assess if their future “partner” possesses all or most of the key attributes they are looking for to maximize their chances of success. Perceptions of compatibility have their limits, however, and some seniors may want ample time to review their options before making a four-year commitment. So, in that sense, applying Early Decision (ED), which is a binding commitment, may not always be the best choice for those students who are still trying to determine best matches and explore a variety of options (including merit aid/scholarship offers) before selecting one school. For more on the topic of early admission options and strategies, please see my November 2022 Spotlight article: Applying Early to Elite Colleges: Pros, Cons, and Strategies for Highly Selective Admissions in a Post-pandemic World.

Furthermore, when trying to dial in college fit or pinpoint factors that make for a good match, students may grow more or less interested in colleges as they complete supplemental essays which are often part of their applications, embracing or ruling out institutions based on their responses to questions like “Why do you want to attend college [X]?” and/or “What interests you in your preferred major/area of study?” To answer these effectively, students must do their research and investigate various programs of study, discovering professors and courses that resonate with their academic/professional interests and goals. To that end I provide seniors with this annually updated Supplemental Essay Guide 2022-23 from College Essay Advisors (admissions essay experts), which offers useful tips and ideas on how to respond to college’s supplemental essay questions. And, in the absence of test scores (or even with their inclusion), these essays are read very carefully by admission counselors who consider thoughtfully the mission appropriateness of applicants based on the depth and breadth of their responses. 

As I work closely with juniors and seniors throughout their college search and application process, I listen to their hopes, fears, and dreams and help them craft and tweak their college lists to ensure they are balanced and set up for success with schools in “reach,” “target,” and “likely” categories (see a sample College Kickstart report below designed for a test student with a 3.5 GPA and no ACT/SAT scores). To find this balance, while capitalizing on early admission and minimizing wasted effort and cost, there is no magic formula but there are great resources we can access together, including College Kickstart and Naviance’s Advanced College Search tool that helps students dial in fit according to their preferences for size, location, majors, etc. 

Every college search, like every student’s personal journey through high school, is unique. And each college placement is the culmination of a long, reflective process of many goals set and decisions made at certain times and places. If you have any questions about finding the best college matches for you or you would like to discuss next steps for your son/daughter in their college prep journey, please feel free to contact me to schedule an appointment at your convenience: rlamb@sageridge.org; 775-852-6222, ext. 510.

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February Issue Main Topic: college admission tests in the post-pandemic era; ACT/SAT prep at SRS through Compass Education Group, coming soon!
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Future Issues: Topics TBD, possibly parents’ role in college search and application process; Resource: Handling College Admission Decisions: A Sidecar Parent’s Guide

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