The right college for you is one that resonates with who you are — in and out of the classroom — and inspires you to achieve your dreams.

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Confronted with over 4,000 four-year colleges and universities, how does a high school student create a college list?

Rather than begin the college search by looking outward at the vast array of colleges, look inward.

The most important questions to ascertain best-fit colleges are to ask oneself: “What are my core values and interests? And “What do I enjoy learning?” Yet in the tyranny of the college application process, a student usually skips right past these fundamental questions about who they are as a person and what they want from their college experience.

To avoid this pitfall, create an answer to this statement: “I am the only student applying to your school who …” and briefly describe the skills and/or accomplishments that differentiate you from every other applicant. Armed with this index card-sized information, students are ready to interact with any college on their list, whether taking a college tour or visiting with an admissions representative at a college fair.

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Next, families should ask, “How much are we able to spend on college?” To determine this number, every family needs to know their EFC (expected family contribution), the amount the federal government asserts they can pay. To obtain this figure, go to the College Board’s website and use Big Future’s calculator. Then, Google the name of an institution followed by the phrase “Net Price Calculator” and enter your EFC to calculate the college’s cost. Fundamentally, best-fit colleges are ones you can afford!

Bang for the buck

“What instructional experience am I purchasing?” is another question students and their families should ask themselves.

As of 2015, nearly 70 percent of all college courses were taught by nontenure track faculty. Students taking classes from contingent faculty have lower graduation rates, experience less student-centered learning, and are challenged to gain assistance outside of class. The American Federation of Teachers recommends asking each college how accessible faculty members are, from holding office hours to mentoring undergraduates, as well as asking what percentage of undergraduate classes and discussion sections are taught by contingent faculty.

To further evaluate a best-fit list of colleges, the National Survey of Student Engagement offers an excellent collection of questions.

STEM or humanities?

Another academic consideration is: Do my colleges offer my intended major? While most 17-year-olds wrestle with identifying their intended major, students should ask themselves “Am I STEM, humanities, performing arts or other (pursuing education to obtain licensure).

Kiersten Murphy, an independent educational consultant in Issaquah, offers this advice: “Students need to really evaluate the educational experience at each of their colleges over the overall social experience.

“In the case of a prospective engineering applicant, students should ask themselves how important it is for them to be directly admitted into the engineering department out of high school. The same would be true for a potential computer science major, a nursing major, etc.

(Courtesy of Emily Wagner Gallagher)
(Courtesy of Emily Wagner Gallagher)

“The student should ask, ‘Would I still attend a particular university even if I am not directly admitted into that department, with no assurances of getting into the department once enrolled?’ ”

Source of inspiration

Fianlly, students (and their families) should determine what drivers shape their college list. According to Anne Wager of Corsava in Seattle, these factors fall into seven categories: academics, educational culture, campus culture, extracurricular activities, geographical region, residential life, and student resources. According to Wager, the best questions get to the heart of a student’s college preferences, shaped by their learning style and core values.

Your best-fit colleges resonate with you: who you are — in and out of the classroom — and inspire you to achieve your dreams.