Is “Fit” an endangered species in college counseling/admissions?  That question came up last week during a conversation with my close friend Brian Leipheimer.  Brian is the Director of College Counseling at the Collegiate School in Richmond, and he and I get together on a regular basis to compare notes and consume beverages.

The question came up because Brian was organizing his year-end Board report around the “fit as endangered species” theme to educate the Board about some of the trends and issues impacting college counseling. Brian continues to believe in the importance of fit and hopes it’s not endangered, but his hypothesis is that at many colleges fit is being eclipsed and preempted by the acronyms ED (Early Decision), DI (Demonstrated Interest), and FP (Full Pay).

I found the conversation both timely and ironic.  While Brian was preparing his board report, I was working on a presentation to alumni at the University of Richmond.  My assigned topic?  The importance of fit.

Both the conversation and the presentation made me think about fit, a concept that has been at the center of my college counseling philosophy and practice for more than thirty years.  It is one of a growing list of core values and beliefs that I find myself worrying are, shall we say, outdated.  Is the endangered species not fit but me?  Am I a Jumpasaurus, a college counseling dinosaur?  Are endangered species aware that they are endangered, or do they suddenly cease to exist?

The notion of fit is based on the belief that every one of the more than 3000 colleges and universities in the United States is right for someone and every one of them is wrong for someone.  What makes them right or wrong is the match or fit between the needs and expectations of the student and the culture or personality of the college.

I see fit as a world-view, the alternative to what might be called the “Best College” world-view.  That world-view, also known as the “Rankings” world-view, states that “you should go to the best college you can.”  What is flawed is the definition of “best” college.  More often than not “Best” equals “most prestigious” which has come to equal “most selective.”  This view sees the value of a college education in the name on the diploma rather than the college experience itself.

The world-view that sees fit as important is built on several foundational assumptions.  One is that a college education can be transformational in a young person’s life, with the experience one has in college being more important than where one goes.  The second is that where one goes to college is important, in that not all colleges are alike.  Finally, college selection is personal.  What is right for you may not be right for me.

There are two key ingredients in determining fit.  One is the student.  Understanding one’s self is essential to determining fit.  Who are you? What do you care about?  What do you want from college?  Issues like size, location, distance from home are all obvious considerations, but so are seemingly less-important things like climate and food.  If you can’t stand cold weather, going to college in Minnesota or Maine may be a mistake, while food, both quality and quantity, is pretty important to most of the college students I know.

The culture or personality of the college is the other component.  Figuring out what is unique or distinct about school culture requires some work, especially in these days of sophisticated marketing which makes schools sound alike.  A number of years ago I attended a conference session where a publications consultant read a passage from a viewbook from a small liberal-arts college and asked the representative from that college to stand.  Twenty admissions officers from twenty different institutions stood up.

Fit requires sophisticated research, and that is the part of the college search process that too many students shortchange.  It requires visiting enough campuses to have a base of knowledge in order to do “comparison shopping” among institutions.  I fell in love with the first college I visited, not realizing until much later that what I had fallen in love with was not the particular institution but the idea of college.  Years ago I worked a summer program at the College of William and Mary attended by students hoping to get an edge in the admissions process (which of course didn’t happen).  Every year I would counsel at least one student who discovered after three days that they couldn’t stand colonial architecture.  At another attractive campus a prospective student told his family to get back in the car as soon as they arrived because there were “too many trees.”

What too often gets overlooked is academic fit.  Several years ago one of my former students came back after his freshman year and stated that the only thing he didn’t think about in choosing a college was academics.  Fit requires finding the right balance between the intellectual, the achievement, and the social.  Going to a school where the other students are in a different place on that continuum is a recipe for misery.

The other issue with regard to academic fit is where you fit within a school’s student body.  One of my students, fortunate to be admitted to a selective institution, learned that the downside was that he had to work much harder than his classmates to earn grades that would qualify him for competitive internships.  Another student who earned good grades at a prestigious small college was told when he applied to law school that he would have been better off attending an easier undergraduate school and making straight A’s.  That seems absurd to me but perhaps says a lot about the legal profession.

Are colleges abandoning concern for fit?  Two years ago I attended a panel at a small conference featuring admissions officers from several selective institutions.  When I asked about fit, they looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues.  That doesn’t mean that fit is any less important in college counseling.  The rise in the use of ED, DI, and FP means that students have to apply more thoughtfully rather than simply apply to more places.  That increases the need for students to think about and articulate their fit with a particular institution.