One of the most popular buzzwords of college admissions is “fit.” Admissions counselors, tour guides and professors talk about how important it is to find a “fit” in your college search process. You hear about schools representing a good fit for you “academically,” “socially,” “emotionally” and for the family “financially.” Today’s column focuses on the academic fit.
One of my high school juniors asked me last week, “How do you know if a college is a good fit for you academically if you have no idea what you want to study?” Great question!
Not being certain of your college major or your future career path is neither a cause for concern nor a free pass to assume you don’t need to think about academics as you research colleges. Here are a few questions you should ask every college on your list:
1. What are the distribution requirements, if any? Columbia University’s “Core” curriculum has a requisite set of courses in contemporary civilization, literature, writing, arts, music and science. Compare those prescribed requirements with Brown University. Brown’s “new curriculum” – adopted in 1969 – requires very little; students have the wide-ranging freedom and the responsibility to design their own curriculum. After being bogged down with so many requirements in high school, many students fantasize about the luxury of only taking classes of interest. Other students are intimidated by too much freedom and opt for more structure. Figure out where you sit on this spectrum and then evaluate colleges accordingly.
2. What about the way courses are structured? In high school you participated in team projects, lecture classes, had a few hands-on interactive experiences, and completed individual papers and reports. You’ll need to recognize your optimum learning style and find out, department by department, how different majors define their “learning/teaching culture.” The likelihood is that you’ll have a combination of the above formats – but if you find out that you’ll have to wait until junior year to have a class with less than 75 students and that doesn’t suit your learning style, that school is not a good fit.
3. Do you need or want actively engaged professors and lots of interaction? Check out the Princeton Review, Fiske Guide to Colleges, and College Prowler descriptions and ratings for “Professor Accessibility” as well as the average class size and the student-to-faculty ratio.
4. Take a look at the syllabus. Courses are listed online, so the old days of thumbing through a 20-pound catalog are long gone. In a few clicks on a college’s website you can reach majors of interest and course listings. Scroll through and make sure there is enough depth and breadth to your possible majors. Ask yourself – “Does this look like a department that can keep me engaged for four years?”
5. Research the career center. Finding out which companies choose to come and recruit at which campuses can be an eye-opening exercise. If you are contemplating graduate school, find out the grad school acceptance rates (by major) as well as the percentage of recent graduates who are employed in their field of interest (not at Panera Bread) within six months of graduation.