“Where do you want to go to college?” is a simple question on the surface. But for most high school students, it’s one that is fraught with anxiety and can raise more questions than answers. Sure, there is an easy, simple answer for a few students: that one dream school they’ve set their sights on for years. For most though, the decision about where to spend your college years is the first big decision of your life, and one with lots of angles, perspectives and unknowns.  In my 11 years as an educator with College Coach, I’ve spent countless hours in conversation with students and their parents helping them to answer this one question: how do they find the place that is the best “fit” for their interests, talents, and aspirations.

How do you define the “best” schools?

Many students I have worked with start by simply stating that they want to go to the “best” college they can get into. But I always push back here, since that response doesn’t tell me the whole story. How do you define “best”? The best academics? The best reputation? The best program in your major (assuming you know what you want to major in; 50 percent of students applying to college don’t)? Best basketball team? Best food? Even if it is all about getting into the most challenging school you can, is that school really the best match for you, not just in terms of academics, but in other less tangible ways?

Yes, a college’s academic reputation and selectivity is important. And you obviously have to pay attention to where you can get in, so that your list is honest and realistic in terms of your chances of acceptance. But getting in should only be a small part of the equation—the real variable to be considering here is fit. And fit can mean all sorts of different things to each person.

What makes a good fit?

So what makes a college a good fit for you? Start by thinking about all the aspects of college life, and remember that you’ll spend more than 60 percent of your time outside of the classroom. Focus on everything from location (which is not just about distance from home, but also climate and culture of the region or state), to size (thinking about not just number of undergraduates, but also the size of the actual campus), to setting (urban, suburban, or rural). Consider the activities and campus environment: do you want a college that has a great sports culture? A thriving great music scene?  Easy access to skiing or hiking? A focus on the performing arts? Not all of these criteria will matter to every student—the key is to determine the most important elements to you. Your “drivers” in your college search,  will help you narrow down the field.

The best way to find your drivers is to ask yourself some crucial questions: what aspects of high school do you most enjoy? In which academic environments are you most successful? What do you like to do for fun? Is there something you’re currently involved with (e.g. community service, youth group, or debate) that you’d like to continue in college? Is there something new you’d like to try?  These may not be questions you’ve actively thought about until now, but they can be a great way for you to start to identify the colleges that are a good fit for you, both academically and socially.

Ultimately, a school’s fit is really critical in determining your comfort level on a campus, both in and out of the classroom. This will directly impact your performance as a student. If you ask the right questions, you’ll ensure that college might be the best four years of your life.

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Written by Julia Jones
Julia Jones is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Julia previously worked as a senior admissions officer at Brandeis University and was the director of admissions at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School. Visit our website to learn more about Julia Jones.