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How to Choose Your Right-Fit Colleges

Let’s cut to the chase. Junior year is, in a word, busy. It’s an outright sprint. In fact, for some students, it can feel a lot like that race is against an ominous ticking clock—but the finish line is still unclear. And to exacerbate an already fragile situation, it’s also the year when students start to deep dive into the college list—quite possibly the most pivotal aspect of the college admission process because it sets the very foundation for everything that follows.

Whew. That’s a lot!

So let’s slow the pace for a minute and take a look at some tips that will help you to bring that finish line into a bit of a clearer focus.

Here are three of my very favorite tips to help you choose the right colleges for you:

1. Consider the academic calendar: If I’m being honest, almost none of my students or their families consider the academic calendar when they’re working through the college list—but the reality is that they should. Semester system, quarter system, block schedule—they all have their pluses and minuses.

The traditional semester system has only two sets of midterms and finals and is comprised of two 15-week terms; it’s the most common.

The quarter system, on the other hand, is also relatively common, and its merits (and pitfalls) are worth exploring. A quarter system (obviously) has 4 quarters, but because the fourth quarter is summer, it can feel more like a trimester system with (for most students) 3 sets of midterms and 3 sets of finals. Because of its fast-paced 10-week terms, students who have difficulty settling into a term should consider its impact on their learning. It should be noted that students on the quarter system enjoy a great variety of courses, the opportunity to learn from a wider variety of professors, and the reality that classes never get stagnant or boring.

The last type of academic calendar is a block schedule. A course, or block, generally lasts 4-5 weeks, and it allows students to do a deep dive into one course at a time. Students take 4 blocks per semester and 8 blocks per year, and this schedule allows them to have unparalleled access to their professors and intimate immersion into what they’re learning. While much more rare, it’s certainly something to consider for the right student.

2. Consider the financial fit: The reality is that some colleges are much more financially friendly than others. And while those colleges might include your in-state options, don’t discount the fact that there are many out-of-state colleges out there that award generous merit aid.

Let’s set the groundwork. Merit aid is money that a college awards to a student regardless of that student’s demonstrated financial need. In other words, it’s money that a school awards to a student just because the school wants the student to attend.

But I’ll be honest: Some schools award generous merit aid, and others simply don’t. Financial fit and the opportunity for merit aid should factor into your college list if you’re looking to make college more affordable. As you and your family are researching colleges to add to your list, make sure to explore merit aid, and don’t underestimate how impactful it can be on your family’s ability to pay for college. It really is the biggest “bang for your buck” when it comes to free money to attend college.

3. Consider campus culture: You might never have thought about it, but you should: Will you thrive in a cooperative environment? Maybe a competitive vibe is what really motivates you to learn and achieve. Do you get excited when you can debate and challenge your classmates? Like the opportunity to participate in classroom discussions? Or, conversely, maybe classroom discussions downright terrify you. Are you someone who needs to get your hands dirty? Does the learn-by-doing approach resonate with you?

Here’s my point: Understand that every college has a bit of a different campus culture, and you’re going to want to make sure that it’s a match at every school that you include on your list. Do your homework: talk with current students, tour and evaluate campuses, read the student newspaper. All of these things and more will give you a sense of the student environment that you’re about to enter.

Choosing where to apply to college certainly is a personal decision. It’s one that involves intentional forethought, detailed research, and an acute attunement to your unique needs. Amidst the hustle and bustle of junior year, while you eschew the noise and the competition gaining traction around you, let yourself instead get caught up in the pursuit of what matters most in your personal college journey: namely, uncovering those schools that will allow you to thrive.


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