Teachers, parents and school counselors commonly encourage college applicants to find a school that’s a “good fit.”

But what, exactly, does that mean? A college that offers a great engineering department or has winning sports teams? That’s big or small or somewhere in the middle? Maybe a good fit, for some students, means the college borders on a bustling town that offers a rousing nightlife; others may be looking for a vibrant frat scene, an up-and-coming performing arts department or simply more sunny days than rainy ones.

The reality is that the good-fit seekers are high school kids who may not know what they want to do next weekend let alone the next four years.

“I didn’t really understand what was meant by ‘good fit,’ ” says Caroline Toombs, who graduated last year from Eastlake High School in Sammamish. “I didn’t think about all the moving parts that truly shape a college and its atmosphere.”

ON COURSE: Your Guide to College Planning

To Toombs, now a freshman at University of California, Santa Barbara, finding the right fit meant finding the highest-ranked school she could get into and not, she says “what truly would help me succeed as a student.”

Know yourself

According to Shannon Carr, associate vice-president of admission at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, students need to figure out who they are before zeroing in on which school they feel is the perfect match. “Everyone should do some self-reflection at the front end,” says Carr. “Each school has a unique personality. You will only understand if that’s a fit if you understand yourself.”


But the messages students get from teachers and parents typically emphasize achievement, not self-awareness, says Kathryn Gillis, co-owner of Bestfit College consulting in Seattle. “The kids hear about the importance of top grades, high test scores, awards and national recognition, so they are very busy achieving,” she says. “They need to think about what they want out of the next step of their educational process.”

That means keeping an open mind during the college search, says Katie O’Brien, director of undergraduate admissions at Seattle University. “Sometimes you walk on a campus and it just speaks to you in a certain way,” she says.

And remember, she adds, “fit” can look like many things. Most important is identifying the place that offers students the bandwidth and resources to thrive. Many schools can meet that standard, she says. “There is no one perfect college out there.”

Look beyond the major

Often, students searching for a college focus on a particular area of study, says Carr. “They’ll say, ‘Tell me about the XYZ major.’ But there’s more to the college experience than that.”

Students should consider features that will round out their overall educational experience, she says. “How will they broaden their understanding? Their overall learning? What leadership opportunities will they have?”

Toombs, the UCSB freshman, feels it’s important students find a school that will push them out of their comfort zone and help them grow. UCSB, she says, has done that for her. “This school has allowed me to mature and gain a stronger sense of responsibility,” she says.


Consider the culture

What else should students look for? “They should ask themselves, what’s my learning style? What haven’t I been exposed to?” says Kelly Herrington, director of college counseling at University Prep in Seattle. Much learning in college happens outside the classroom, he notes. “Many students look for ‘their people.’ They want to know, do I see myself reflected in the student body?”

And consider size, says Gillis. “Do I do better in a smaller setting when I can talk out my ideas? Or do I like having someone lecture then process and do my own research?”

Some applicants focus too much on preparing for a career that may not even exist when they graduate, says Herrington. That’s why it’s so important to think about a school’s values and culture — not simply the courses. “Read the school’s mission statement,” he says. “Does it resonate? That’s often the best clue to what a college is about.”

Colleges want a fit, too

Colleges also look for their own version of a “good fit.” Admissions officers need to build a class and create a community, and seek applicants who will enrich and strengthen that community. “Many colleges ask prospective students in essays or interviews, ‘why us?’” says Gillis. “This is a way for schools to know if students really understand the school — and to find out what they will bring to the table.

Many schools project a particular personality, and try to cultivate students who exude similar characteristics, she says. “Some look for students who want the life of the mind and others want kids with a more well-rounded background. And some places look for both.”

Often, a school’s needs will be specific — and difficult to predict: One year a college might need a bagpipe player, the next year a debater. “The problem is, you can be the great soccer forward in the year of the oboe player,” says Herrington.


But overall, most colleges want to fill their campuses with engaged undergraduates who demonstrate passion and commitment, she says. “They like students who will contribute inside and outside the classroom.”

Visit, if you can

Ideally, prospective students travel to colleges they are interested in and get a feel for the school’s style, culture, geography and environment, says Herrington. “They should sit in class, get the school newspaper and chat with the kids, not just the guides.” If that’s not possible, she says, visit college fairs, meet with college reps at high schools and connect with alumni and students through social media.

And don’t get overly swayed by a school’s reputation or ranking, says Toombs. “Although research is important when deciding which school to choose, there is also a big emotional aspect to the decision. When you get on campus to visit, take a second and ask yourself, can I really see myself here?”