A College “Fit” Can Be Perfect Until It Isn’t. And Then What?

When your child first starts searching for a college to attend, you quickly begin to hear the term “college fit.”

On one hand, the concept seems very black and white, because it is often defined using concrete categories such as school size, academic programs, cost, and location. A high school student can usually pick designations within these categories fairly easily to begin to narrow down their search.

It’s simple, for example, to find suitable schools if you do an online search or tell a counselor that you want a large university in an urban area on the East Coast that is generous with financial aid and has a well-respected Psychology Department.

But on the other hand, “fit” also includes more far-reaching and nebulous categories that are very subjective and personal for each student. These are factors like school spirit, campus culture, variety of student organizations and clubs, diversity of faculty, campus recreation options, food choices and campus beauty. These make it much more difficult to make direct comparisons between schools.

What makes an imperfect college fit a rewarding life experience
As your teen applies to college, you hear the words “college fit” more and more. (ImageFlow/Shutterstock)

Colleges, like people, develop reputations that are based on facts, but also on opinions and feelings. We’ve all heard schools labeled in these ways: politically active, artsy, innovative, unconventional, party schools, and even cut-throat.

Student A might find one school’s culture too “conservative,” while Student B feels right at home. An offering of ten club sports may delight one student, while another thinks that number is not nearly enough.

For these reasons, kids are advised to go on college tours, and to try to spend a night in a dorm at a prospective school, so that they can get a good feel for what it’s truly like, not just what it looks like in a glossy brochure or on a well-manicured website.

As my own daughter prepares to graduate from college in a few months, and my son will finish up his second year at a different school, I’ve come to appreciate just how vague and ever-evolving this whole college “fit” concept truly can be.

Here are my three biggest take-aways for students – and parents – who have yet to decide which school is the best fit for them.

Three Things to Consider About an Imperfect College Fit

1. What may seem to be a “perfect” fit near the end of a student’s high school career, may feel completely wrong a year later.

There are major things that can change during a student’s first year away at college. These can be a decision to change majors, a horrible roommate experience, extreme homesickness, not being accepted into a social or living organization they were counting on, an athlete being injured or cut from a team, and a disappointing academic performance.

Kids mature and change so frequently during these late teen and early twenty-something years. Both my children surprised me in multiple ways with how their attitudes about school-related issues transformed during their first year or so of college. (Just a few weeks ago, my son who said he’d never be interested in study abroad, informed he was going to be applying for a semester overseas. Whaaat?!)

There’s nothing wrong with figuring out and acknowledging that after a year or two at a certain school, it’s actually not the right fit for a student and they’d be better off transferring.

2. A great fit doesn’t mean 100% (or even 90%) happiness and success in college.

I was talking to a family member recently about plans for my daughter’s graduation in May, and she remarked that the school choice had been a perfect fit for my daughter. And while it has been, in a variety of ways, that doesn’t mean everything worked out perfectly for her over these past four years.

She faced a good number of challenges while there, some of which were actually expected, and others that came completely out of the blue. Like many other students, she struggled with some very tough classes, didn’t get accepted for every opportunity she applied for, and had a very “interesting” roommate situation her freshman year. (I’ll leave it at that.)  It’s still been a wonderful fit for her.

Which leads to the most important realization…

3.“Fit” is what a student creates for themselves.

College life is just a small and slightly cloistered segment of real, adult life. There are going to be constant challenges. Things that you assume will be easy, often turn out to be problematic and difficult. Situations where you feel you are competent and are suitably prepared with the appropriate skills, may leave you reeling and confused.

How a student prepares for contingencies and adapts to unforeseen circumstances will greatly increase their chances of experiencing a good college fit.

The key thing to remember is that every student who enters college possesses yet-to-be fully developed beliefs about their essential abilities to handle challenges and stress, also known as their “fixed or growth mindset.”

A student with a fixed mindset feels their innate abilities are static and they tend to avoid challenges and give up easily. For them, the awareness that college isn’t turning out the way they expected, can lead to frustration and extreme unhappiness – and a declaration of “This was not the right fit for me.”

A student with a growth mindset is much more apt to embrace challenges, persist through setbacks, and view effort as the path to accomplishment. These are the ones who craft a good fit for themselves by finding lessons in all of their college experiences, both good and bad.

So, whether a certain school seems to be a nearly perfect fit for your student, or they decide on one that you feel is not a great fit for them, they have a great deal of control over how they react and adapt to their lived experiences while in college.

Instead of worrying if a school will be the perfect fit for your student, you and your student should be evaluating whether they have the fluidity of mind to make it a good fit.


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About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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