Searching for A 'Perfect Fit' College Can Be A Big Mistake

Research shows high schoolers don’t really know what they want in a college.


College admissions officers tell applicants they are looking for students who "fit" on campus. High school counselors tell students that they need to find a college that "fits" their unique learning styles and interests. Publishers of college guides—including U.S.News & World Report—advertise tools and data designed to help high schoolers winnow through the thousands of colleges in the U.S. to find the handful that offer the "best fit." 

[Check out U.S. News's Guide to Admissions.]

Now, a few counselors are starting to worry that the emphasis on college "fit" is giving too many high schoolers the romantic—and possibly harmfully inaccurate—notion that there is a "perfect match" college out there for them. In fact, these counselors argue, typically dozens, or even hundreds, of colleges out of America's 4,300 accredited degree-granting institutions would serve a student well.

Carl Ahlgren, director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private boys’ school in Baltimore, says he and many other counselors are worried about the growing number of students who are making themselves crazy searching for colleges that match some quixotic ideals they've imagined, or who become devastated if they get rejected from their one dream college.

“Applicants who totally ingest the whole notion of ‘fit’ often assume that means they will be happy at “maybe only one, two, or three schools,” Ahlgren says. But really, there might be100 schools where that particular student could thrive, he believes. “Smart kids find other smart kids and good teachers, and they are happy.”

[Read about the factors students say they use in choosing colleges.]

The problem is becoming especially acute for girls, says Mark Moody, co-director of college counseling at Colorado Academy, a private school in Denver. "Girls seem more likely to put pressure on themselves to find—and get into—the 'perfect' school." He adds: "We're seeing (and hearing from colleagues at other schools) more and more about girls losing their joy in learning and feeling like they have to be building a perfect record of accomplishment, [to get into their one dream school] which of course leads to massive stress."

The focus on a "perfect fit" college not only makes students miserable, but can be a waste of time and energy because the typical high schooler doesn't actually know what he or she wants in a college. Researchers at the College Board and the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign compared what thousands of applicants said they wanted in a college with their performance in the colleges they ended up attending. Students who chose schools that appeared to "fit" their high school criteria were just as likely to drop out as those who ended up at colleges that didn't appear to "fit" them.

"How would high school students know the 'right' college size for them? 10,000? 15,000? Most have never attended college before!" the authors wondered. "Possibly students weren't selecting characteristics that were 'right' for them but rather selecting a characteristic of an ideal or stereotypical college."

One factor did seem to make a difference: students who chose more academically selective schools had better graduation rates than similarly qualified students who attended less elite colleges, another College Board paper found.

[Find the colleges with the lowest dropout rates.]

Many counselors have pushed the idea of students searching for a college that "matches" their characteristics to reduce the influence that rankings, such as those published by U.S. News, appeared to be having on student college choices. Robert Morse, U.S. News's director of data research, says rankings, which are based on many factors such as graduation rates, should be just one component in a student's college search.

[Read why U.S. News ranks colleges.]

Moody and Ahlgren say students and parents should stop treating college like marriage by searching for "soulmates." Instead, these counselors say, students should shop for colleges the way they do for, say, jackets, which will only last a few years. Lots of jackets "fit," after all. And kids often grow into clothes that initially seem too big or ill-fitting.