Guest Post by Julie Wolf
I don’t remember “fit” being a thing when I applied for college over three and a half decades ago. I leafed through Barron’s, dog-eared a few pages, committed test-score averages to memory, and mailed away for applications. I thought about December 15 a lot. I didn’t think much about “fit.”
So what is this “fit” they talk about today on college tours and in all the resources aimed at students and their parents? Exactly what it sounds like, really: Can you see yourself at this school? Students should ask themselves: Can I picture myself finding my community, be it scholarly, athletic, artistic, ethnic, religious, or cultural? Is there Greek life, and if there is, will my social life be equally rich whether I choose to participate in it or not? What about the political climate, and do I care if it’s liberal-leaning or conservative-leaning, or somewhere in between?
And now the biggies—or not-so-biggies, as the case may be: size and location. (Notice that I’m leaving out the biggest biggie of all: the financial piece. That’s a whole other blog post.) Students, do you crave the excitement of a huge student body in an urban setting, or would you prefer a small campus in a college town? What about the hundreds of permutations that exist in between? The tour guides and the literature promise you will find the one that’s right for you!
But there’s something a bit perplexing to parents. In the midst of all this emphasis on “fit,” what a parent may see as the focus of a college education—which is, after all, the college education part—seems to be taking a back seat. As you and your young adult absorbed information on campus after campus about the best dorm to live in and the ideal number of swipes for the dining plan and this team and that acting troupe, you wonder if the tour guides spent enough time talking about classes. You mention this to your child. “No, Mom, he did. But he was a chem major, and I’m not interested in that.” It’s luck of the draw when it comes to tour guides in that regard. To get a sense of whether a school is the right academic fit, your child’s best bet is to go back to the books—or at least to the website. Look at the course offerings, the requirements, the opportunities for studying abroad as it pertains to particular areas of interest. A student may not figure out their dream major right away, but if your child dreamed that they might one day win the Nobel Prize for curing the common cold, they’ll want to find a school strong in the sciences. If your child knows they want to double major in very different subjects, they’ll need to find a school whose core curriculum makes that possible, not insurmountable. When it comes to academics, prospective students need to follow their head as much as their heart.
Eventually, students figure out how to do both. Ideally, head and heart arrive at the same decision—and, possibly even more ideally, your head and heart arrive at the same decision they do. But what if your child’s sense of where she fits differs from yours? What if that big city school your son has their heart set on strikes you as a place where it might be all too easy to slip through the cracks? What if you know your daughter has always wanted to learn Arabic, but she’s overlooking the fact that a school has no Arabic language program because she likes the idea of studying in the shadow of some great landmark or another? Share your perspective with your child, voice your concerns, but as you tell them what they might be overlooking, ask them what they think you’re overlooking. You might be surprised by all that they’ve seen, and all that you’ve missed. In the end, this is their experience to have.
Finally, after all the tours and fairs, all the researching options online and in guidebooks, after standing shyly with arms folded and eyes downcast on campus after campus, your child is finally (pretty) sure. The shrugs and “I don’t knows” are at last replaced by an ear-to-ear grin and a declarative sentence: “Yeah, I can see myself here.” If she can see it, it’s a safe bet you’ll learn to see it, too.
About Julie Wolf
Julie Wolf, the sole proprietor of Qwerty Editorial, is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Framingham, MA, with her husband and their three children: an eighth-grader, a high school sophomore, and a first-year college student. She can be reached through LinkedIn.