This article is part four in a four-part series about finding the right college. It is written by Ed LaFreniere
The ‘fit:’ an absolutely critical factor
– A REALLY BIG QUESTION: Do you see a true fit in terms of your needs and your personality? Would you swear on a stack of Bibles? How about on a stack of music CDs that you actually PAID FOR? Ha – gotcha! Some points to keep in mind:
• Tell yourself the truth. Don't delude yourself just because of a prestigious name, or just because your parents donated five billion dollars to the place. And remind your parents that this should, as much as possible given financial realities, be your decision. You’re the one who’s going to have to sit in those classrooms and build a life for yourself. You’re the one who should feel confident, optimistic and happy.
• TOO enthusiastic? Are you ready to jump right in ... join 40 clubs ... attend that lecture on Wart Hogs ... run, not walk, to the Animal Science Department and beg to get into Wart Hog Anatomy I ... and help your parents pay the astronomical tuition bill by spending Saturday nights bleaching the football team's socks? If you start getting a little manic and are ready to do anything to get into this place, stop! You haven't allowed yourself to think this through carefully. We're not kidding – there are positives and negatives to every college and university. Blind love usually becomes unrequited very quickly, and those socks will start to stink in no time. Disillusionment is not fun.
• Have an overall positive sense? If your gut, your heart and your head agree with each other after serious reflection, well, now you're getting somewhere. Either that, or you have multiple-personality disorder. But it’s best to apply only to institutions where the plusses by far outweigh the minuses, and you should, indeed, see the potential for thriving, getting involved and allowing your passions to flourish.
• Remember how you felt during your visit. If you were paralyzed with dread pretty quickly, and your only thought was that you'd prefer four years of solitary confinement in a dungeon, never glance back. Don't make a lousy personal decision just because of, say, a magazine ranking. This is YOUR LIFE!!! If you ever hear that alter ego repeat a school’s name incessantly solely because of prestige, consider yourself to be hearing voices, and make an emergency appointment with a psychiatrist.
– The social scene: If fraternities and sororities dominate the weekends (and, let’s face it, maybe some weeknights, too), will you feel like a lamb awaiting slaughter? Many of these organizations perform impressive amounts of community service; others make Animal House look like Mary Poppins. Will this scene be Greek to you – either way?
– Did someone say, ‘party school’? Or are there rumors of a drug problem? A reputation is one thing – reality is another. Ask as many students as you can (don’t limit yourself to the president of your favorite fraternity – try people in a cafeteria, and a few who can pinpoint the location of the library, give or take a few hundred yards). Some students at every school will treat the place as a country club, but they may be just a small minority. However, if you discover that the most important item to take with you to campus is a bail bondsman or a lawyer, caveat emptor (‘buyer beware,’ as you should have learned in Latin!). Again, securityoncampus.org posts arrest numbers for each campus. Also go to myspace.com, or similar sites. You know why!
– Will you feel 'well-grounded' here? If you're headed for Juilliard and music is your life, THAT will go a long way toward counteracting any negatives, like the fact that you're a country kid who never wore shoes, and you're wondering why your feet hurt so much in February. But otherwise, is there a terrific and highly respected course of study, which draws passionate and friendly students, that truly energizes you? Are there students who share your interests and goals and are willing to work hard to achieve them – and help YOU? A good grounding helps. If you're a golfer, for example, are there nearby courses where other students have created a club or an intramural league? Have you emailed the person in charge? Has he or she embraced your enthusiasm and promised to help you get involved? In other words, find something that will connect you to the place, to give you a sense of belonging. Avoid colleges at which your first thought is, 'Where can I find a cannon powered by a Pratt & Whitney engine that can shoot me a million miles away?’
– Know thyself. Yes, it's trite. But it's true. What type of experience will make you very happy? And what will make you absolutely miserable? If your greatest fear is public speaking, and all your classes will have 800 students, and you will be forced to give presentations in all of them, you won't have to make that emergency appointment with a psychiatrist – someone else will do it for you! If you're a liberal Democrat and want a warm climate in which you can hone your croquet skills year-round, fine. But will the political environment make it seem as if you're in the netherworld? In whatever way, will you be able to tolerate a culture that is completely different, that might make you cringe whenever the talk turns to politics and you start to wonder how any single human being – let alone forty thousand of them – can believe such things? Are you from a state of a completely different color? How about sexuality? Will the culture welcome, rather than ostracize, you?
– Know thy counseling services. College can be very stressful, and some students may need assistance in coping and adjusting, or for treatment of depression or other psychological issues. What types of services are available?. What brochures and other information do they offer? Find out where counselors are located – hopefully not at a single desk out in public in the lobby of the student union, under a huge banner. Ditto infirmary, hospital and other health-care facilities. What if you, too, are felled by the mystery meat? Are doctors and nurses on call, or on the premises, at all times?
– Diversity. Do you really want a school full of kids that are just like YOU? That have the same background? That think like you??? Not a good idea. Richness in diversity is educational and inspirational, not to mention interesting – and, after a day or so, is not even noticed at some campuses because of a healthy blending. If you are a minority, ask current students about this aspect of campus life, which may be critical to your happiness. Is there much diversity? If so, do people of color, for example, tend to spend all their time with each other? Or does everyone mix well? How closely are all groups intertwined?
– Facilities for the disabled? If this is important to you, do LOTS of research. Will you be climbing steep hills? Does the library have access only via 42 steps? How about the dorms, bathroom facilities and classroom buildings? If a campus’s idea of the disabled is people who remain unconscious during weekend parties, you’re at the wrong place.
– Religious services. Is your religion represented on campus? Can you find services within a 500-mile radius? For many, this is absolutely vital. If you’re blindsided, you may not have a prayer of being happy or of feeling whole for the next four years.
And One Last Thing
In case you don’t get in: Say that your top choice didn’t need you, the world-famous tuba player, this year; they were missing a trombonist instead. Or they had a full lineup for the curling team, and were recruiting a ballet dancer. This kind of thing happens, especially at small schools; it’s called ‘slotting.’ Never forget this: You are smart, you have a bright future, and dozens, if not hundreds, of other colleges may be just as good a fit for you. Remember that admissions decisions frequently seem to defy logic. Only you can decide if you’re going to allow yourself to be miserable – or if you’ll pick yourself right up and decide right then that in four years you will write to that admissions office and show them what a mistake they had made. Go get ‘em!