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6 Steps to Finding the Right College Fit for Your Teenager

Deciding where to apply to college can feel stressful and confusing. With so many great options, how should students go about finding the right college fit?

Find the Best College Fit

1. Getting Started

Martha O’Connell, Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives, says, “Students should begin their search by examining themselves and their reasons for going to college.” O‘Connell encourages students to be honest in their assessment in order to determine their strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and what kind of learning community they want to be a part of.

Aaron Greene, founder of College Liftoff, says there are four main criteria that students need to examine when finding the right college fit for them: academic reputation, career development reputation, financial considerations and whether the school is a good fit.

Greene cautions students not to let one component overshadow the other three. “Sometimes students fall immediately in love with a school, and the fit is good. But, if it does not meet a student’s financial needs, it is probably not the right choice.”

2. Evaluating Schools

Students and parents should approach the search for finding the right college fit the same way they would approach buying a home.

Greene says, “Students need to do their research and not be afraid to ask tough questions, such as, ‘What kind of internships are offered?’ and, ‘What are the job placement statistics?’ Don’t rely on a school’s reputation alone. A school may offer many majors but only really excel in some of them.”

The school’s location, size and student life are also important factors to consider.

3. Keeping Options Open

College admissions can seem random, and sometimes, even an ideal candidate for a particular school will not get accepted.

Maureen Tillman, psychotherapist and founder of College with Confidence, advises parents, “Never talk about one school as perfect during this process. Look at each school your teenager is applying to and explore all the positives (as well as negatives), helping them to see that there is not just one school for them.”

4. Visiting Colleges

College visits are a key part of determining whether a school is a good match. School-sponsored tours are good, but only as a starting point.

“Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path and walk around on your own, unsupervised and unchaperoned. It’s important to take the time to get a feel for the campus and its culture or personality,” says Robin Mamet, co-author of College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step.

Keep an open mind on college visits. Ally Weissenberg, a high school senior, initially thought she wanted to attend a very big university. But on her tour, the school felt impersonal, and she felt lost. She discussed her feelings with her counselor, who suggested a smaller school.

“When I visited Tulane University, I liked the smaller size,” Weissenberg says. “The students looked happy, and the campus seemed friendly and welcoming. Walking around, I could picture myself being friends with the students I saw.”

5. Keeping the Rankings in Check

Many students and parents feel pressured to pick a school based on prestige and rankings. Rebecca Bergman, a high school senior, says, “College rankings definitely played a role in my decision-making. I applied early decision to an Ivy League school because I felt I should reach a little higher. But, that school was more of a city school and not what I really wanted. Luckily, I was not accepted and will be attending my true first choice school in the fall.”

Bergman’s feelings on picking the right college are not uncommon. O’Connell, says, “We live in a brand-name society. Many parents want to ride around town with a certain college bumper sticker. But, choosing a college because of where it ranks on a list does not take into account who you are and who you want to become.”

6. Making it Work

“I wish that students would approach the college search with a greater appreciation for the long view of education,” O’Connell says. “It’s not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey to get there.”

Regardless of what school a student winds up attending, it is up to them to make their college experience the best it can be. Tillman says, “As with all things in life, in the end, it is what you make of the opportunity.”

Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, midlife issues, and family life. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Washington Post, The Fine Line and The Girlfriend. She is a frequent contributor to Your Teen for Parents. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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