How can I find the right US college for me?

Posted on 13th August 2021

Fit and Research

In the world of US applications, one word that you often hear is ‘fit.’ Fit is a crucial factor in whether applicants will be offered places, but can be quite nuanced and hard to understand at first. Taking a bit of time to consider how well you fit in to a particular college will not only boost your chances of acceptance, but also set you on the path for success at your chosen institution!

This idea of fit is much more important at US colleges than at others around the world, and this connects to the holistic nature of US applications. ‘Holistic’ refers to the fact that US admissions officers look at more than just academics when assessing applicants, i.e. essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities. 

However, the idea of fit also goes a bit deeper than those elements of the application and is a connecting factor behind them. Each college has its own values, curriculum, style of teaching, and vision of community, and all the aspects of a successful application need to show admissions officers that an applicant will fit into the entire university community. If you’re not sure where you’ll fit in, the disparate elements of your application won’t come together in the same way to tell the story of a good-fit student, and you’re less likely to receive an offer.

How do I know where I would fit in? This is a big question! Some students come to the application process with a strong sense of what they want from the university experience, and others don’t, but this is OK. If you’re not sure, take some time to figure it out! You can consider the below when beginning to think about fit: 

  • Academics: We recommend looking at colleges’ freshman profiles to check the range of standardised test scores of admitted students. If you’re planning on applying, you should be in this range.
  • Size: The size of US colleges ranges from one or two thousand students at small liberal arts colleges, to 40,000 + at big colleges like University of Southern California and NYU. At small colleges, you’ll know everyone and are likely to have small, discussion-based classes, whereas at big colleges there will be lots of new people and opportunities, and large lecture classes. Think about your current school and its size: are you happy with it, or do you wish it were bigger or smaller?
  • Curriculum: There is a huge range of curricula at US colleges. If you don’t know what you want to specialise in and hope to be exposed to lots of subjects to figure this out, a college with a core curriculum might be a good fit for you. If you do have a better sense of this, or are much better at some subjects than others, a college with a few distribution requirements or an open curriculum might work well.
  • Campus culture: Would you like to be in a setting with lots of other intellectually and academically focused students? Or would you prefer a more relaxed, social environment? Do you want a more pre-professional learning environment where students are majoring in business and engineering, or one more purely dedicated to the liberal arts?
  • Setting: Where you learn affects both the atmosphere on campus and the opportunities available off campus. Would you like to be part of a rural learning community, a more bustling and urban environment, or a college town? Do you want to be close to an airport, or are you happy to be somewhere more remote?
  • Climate: There is a huge range of climate and landscape in the US, from very cold temperatures and snow in places like Boston and Michigan, to hot, humid weather in Florida and Texas, to beaches in California, and mountains and skiing in Colorado and Nevada.

If sport and finance are major factors for you, this will impact the way you evaluate best-fit institutions. If you play sport at a highly competitive level, you may be considering playing at a US university. If this is the case, you will reach out to coaches directly, and they will guide your application process, rather than using typical application portals online. It’s worth considering working with a sports consultant, who can honestly appraise your chances; if you take this route, we recommend Sporting Elite

If you won’t be able to attend a US college unless you receive scholarships or financial aid, we would recommend keeping this in mind at the outset of the process. Have a look for lists of colleges that provide the most financial aid to international students, and research those to find the ones that fit what you’re looking for from a college. We recommend seeing how much finance is available using Jennie Kent and Jeff Levy’s resource here.

Once you have in mind what will make a college a good fit for you, explore your options with some online college search tools. The College Board has an excellent one, and Noodle, Niche, and College Express are also good. The Fiske Guide to Colleges is a great resource, listing key info about colleges and recommending colleges that are similar to those that interest you. Creating a spreadsheet listing what you’re looking for from colleges and ranking each one on those criteria can help you organise that information and narrow down your college list. 

By researching colleges’ websites, attending online events and college fairs, and visiting colleges (online or in-person), you can get a sense of what they are looking for from you, and thus evaluate your fit there. Colleges tend to have particular emphases and values that are reflected in the student experience they provide. For example, Notre Dame and Georgetown are Catholic universities: this does not mean that you need to have certain religious views to apply or be accepted, but these colleges will be looking for students who are committed to serving others in their school and wider communities. At Vanderbilt, their first-year housing programme might be a better fit for a more gregarious, community-minded student than someone more reserved. Admission officers at colleges with urban campuses would want to understand why someone who grew up and attended boarding school in rural settings is looking to make such a change, and be confident they would be able to adjust. 

Taking the time to decide what you want from a university and find colleges that offer that may be quite time-consuming, but will definitely pay off both in your chances of admission and your satisfaction and prospects for success. If you’d like guidance with this process, get in touch with about our college counselling services

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