How do I know if a college is a good fit?

Posted on 7th April 2022

How do I know if a college is a good fit?

One of the main characteristics of US universities that sets them apart from universities in other countries is their emphasis on finding students that ‘fit’. They are seeking to admit applicants who are a good match with their own values surrounding things like academics, size, culture, and curriculum. This goal underpins their holistic admissions process, in which potential applicants are assessed on criteria like extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations, as well as their academics.

In a previous blog, we went through the different elements of fit, and how you can find colleges that fit what you are looking for. But perhaps the more complex (but interesting) question is, how do you know your own values, and what you want from a university experience, particularly as a teenager?

While there is no perfect answer to this question, there are a number of ways you can investigate this. First, think about your learning style. Do you prefer to sit back, listen, and take notes? Or do you need to have a dialogue with your peers or a teacher or tutor in order to flesh out your ideas and understand the material? Or, perhaps, you need a hands-on approach, with first-hand experience rather than reading or hearing about the material.

If you’re not sure, that’s okay! Questions like these are ones you have to let marinate a bit. Perhaps you could think about your favourite and least favourite classes. In your favourite class, is the learning more about listening and taking notes, discussion, or hands-on experience? In your least favourite? This can help you understand how you learn best, and how you enjoy learning best.

Figuring out your learning style can take some thought, but it’s definitely a worthwhile exercise, as US universities all have very different and distinct curricula. Some colleges, like Columbia and UChicago, have core curricula, with lots of varied, required courses in the humanities and social sciences and can even include physical education! Others, like Penn and Yale, have distribution requirements, which allow students a bit more flexibility to choose specific classes within a framework of requirements, like Cross-Cultural Analysis or quantitative reasoning. Other colleges, like Brown, have open curricula, which have no required courses at all, and allow students complete freedom to choose their classes as long as they gain the required credits to graduate and can demonstrate their ability in academic writing. (You can find out more about curricula in our previous blog here.)

When considering the aspirational, match, and likely options on your list, you can also think about how you’d feel academically in each place, and how that might impact your confidence. You might want to consider whether you are driven primarily by competition or collaboration – the US has plenty of examples of both kinds of environments. At an aspirational school, you might find the academics extremely challenging, and you may also find that you’re no longer at the top of your class. Would this challenge cause you to work harder, push yourself, and achieve even more, or would it bring you stress that kept you from thriving? On the flip side, would attending a match or likely school where you wouldn’t have to struggle as much academically give you more bandwidth to explore multiple interests, or leave you feeling demotivated? Think back about your high school classes, and how you reacted in those environments, to assess this.

Another way to open up the question of what you’re looking for from the university experience is to ask yourself what is the main thing that you want from it. Are you looking for adventure, meeting new people, and a fun new experience? Or do you want to set yourself up for a successful, stable career? Or, do you want to dive deep into your academic interests alongside others who are just as passionate about them as you are? It could be one of these answers or a combination of them, and there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to your motivation for college. But try to be honest with yourself when considering this question and not to dwell on the expectations you and others have for yourself.

If you want to explore careers and programmes, there are some useful tools out there to help you do this. Try Arizona State University’s Career Explorer and University of Illinois’ program explorer.

US colleges all have distinct and diverse values, so another good way to make sure you’re targeting colleges where you’ll be a good fit is to assess your values. This can be difficult, as values are often abstract and big-picture. To help open this up, you can do things like list the five activities you do that mean the most to you, or think about the parts of your day that you enjoy the most. Perhaps football practice after school, or collecting your little brother from school and walking home with him. In the first case, some values you might hold are persistence, competition, teamwork, and excellence; in the second, family, personal connection, and responsibility. A great resource for helping you find your values is the College Essay Guy’s Values Exercise. Once you’ve identified those values, a great way to apply those and your other desired qualities to your college search is to create a spreadsheet scoring colleges out of 10 on the extent to which they fulfil your core values and other important criteria. This can give you a better sense of which colleges are the best fit for you in the college search process.

Determining your values and what you want from the university experience is crucial to finding this sense of fit, which is one of the most important factors in US university applications. Doing so may take a lot of time and reflection, but it’s worth it! If you want expert guidance in determining what you want from a US university, and in the overall process, check out our college counselling service here, or email

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