Finding a Good College Fit

Don't settle for a school that only meets one or two of your needs.

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Which college is best for you—and why?

On the surface, these questions may not seem very consequential. When you consider the opportunity that lies before you, however, understanding the importance of the questions and being able to answer them thoughtfully can make a big difference in the outcomes of your college planning process.

A college education is an important lifetime opportunity. Throughout your undergraduate experience, you will meet new people, prepare for a career, and learn more than you could ever imagine. If you use your time well, you will also increase your lifetime earning capacity exponentially. The payoffs for education are both immediate and long term. That's why families are willing to make the investment.

[Read more about making good on the educational investment.]

Unfortunately, the investment can prove costly when college plans go awry. Consider the following:

• Fewer than 50 percent of the students who enter college graduate in four years.

• Barely half will graduate from any college at any time in their lives.

These are not good outcomes, either for the students or the society that bears the financial brunt of a collective failure to make good on educational opportunities. The ensuing costs are undeniable. When you are not able to finish what you start, your family loses the money it has put into tuition and other college expenses. Attach a dollar mark to the cost of a year's tuition, and you get the picture. The money doesn't come back if you become sidetracked or leave college prematurely. It is the "cost of unfulfilled potential."

[Understand the college costs guessing game.]

Failing to stay the course to graduation from college also means you lose time toward completion of an undergraduate degree and the subsequent opportunity to gain an advantage in the job market. Even if you return to the classroom after having been away for a while or you transfer to a different school, the cost of lost opportunity can be significant. Not only must you absorb the tuition and fees associated with an additional year or so of education, you must also wait longer to take advantage of your new earning potential.

While there are all kinds of "good" reasons— personal, financial, and academic—to leave college prematurely, the fact that many of them are avoidable only adds to the tragedy.

The key, then, is to get the choice of a college right the first time. To do that, you need to reflect on factors that relate to a good college fit for you. In doing so, you put yourself in the best position to find success both in the college admissions process and the undergraduate years that follow.

With more than 3,000 colleges and universities across the country, you will quickly discover many viable options. Some are well known, if not quite famous. Others will be new to you. Regardless, most have something of value to offer.

Among them, the "best college" is the one that is right for you. It is a quality option if for no other reason than it is the college that will best meet your needs. It fits. It might not hold the cachet or ranking that impresses your friends, but it does fit your aptitude and needs.

[Get more advice from U.S. News on finding the right school.]

The college that fits you best is one that will:

1. Offer a program of study to match your interests and needs;

2. Provide a style of instruction to match the way you like to learn;

3. Provide a level of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation;

4. Offer a community that feels like home to you; and

5. Value you for what you do well.

As you consider colleges, start with an understanding of fit from a perspective that is centered on your sense of self. How does each college you encounter measure up against these elements of a good fit? You need be conscious of inconsistencies because they will likely become sticking points for you later on. Don't settle for a college that only meets one or two criteria. It's a compromise that could cost you later.

Finally, don't be surprised if you find more than one institution that seems to fit. That's great! Not only will you improve your odds of gaining admission to those colleges, you are more likely to stay once enrolled. And that's a good thing!

For a more detailed discussion of the "best college fit," see The College Planning Workbook.

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