Making Your College Search Work for You
I recently participated on a panel offering advice to prospective students on their college search process. During this panel, we spoke about the value of finding your fit–the idea that identifying the colleges that you can see yourself thriving in will contribute to success during and after college. After a few of us made this point, a student unmuted and asked, “But how can you tell if a college is a good fit for you?”
As admission professionals, we sometimes push campus visits and “find your fit” messaging without offering the tools students can use to figure this piece out. At Agnes Scott, we talk about fit in three ways:academic, social, and fiscal. We’re going to use those pieces of fit to identify the questions you can ask to find your real fit.
When I was a senior in high school, the question I asked every tour guide and admission counselor was: “Is your English department good?” I knew even as I asked that the only answer they could give to that question was “yes.” However, this wasn’t really what I wanted to know. I wanted to know about the strengths of their English department. I wanted to know if I would graduate as a better reader and writer if I studied there. I wanted to know how engaged the faculty were with their students and vice versa. If you have a good sense of the academic area you plan to study, here are some better questions to try:
- What are some popular or unique classes I could take if I studied this major at this college?
- What are some goals you have for your graduates in this department?
- What differentiates studying this major here as opposed to at another college?
- Can you tell me about a student’s capstone, research, or thesis project that stood out to you?
I do caution students from focusing too much on a specific academic department. Yes, if you have a very specific major in mind, you probably want to focus on colleges that offer this opportunity. But since almost half of students will change their major during their time in college, it’s more important to think about your ideal learning environment. Good questions to ask include:
- How many students can I expect in a core class versus a class that is specifically for my major?
- What does your core curriculum look like?
- Are classes taught by faculty or teaching assistants? How accessible are faculty outside of instruction time?
- Are most classes taught lecture-style or discussion based?
- Do professors take attendance? Is class participation part of your grade?
- What do academically successful students have in common at this institution?
- If I’m struggling with a concept or a class, what is my first line of defense/resource to get back on track?
- Would you describe the most classroom environments as competitive or collaborative?
If you asked me my senior year of high school what the most important factor in my college search was, I absolutely would have said “diversity.” As an opinionated and curious high student who often felt marginalized, shut down, or tokenized for most of my academic career, I craved an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with students with similar identities as mine, as well as students I never had the opportunities to learn from given the homogeneity of my previous classroom environments. Convinced that having more people of color in my classrooms and clubs would be the answer to all of my concerns, I searched for diversity statistics on each college’s admission page and quizzed my tour guides and admission counselors on numbers that told me where their students were from, socioeconomic backgrounds, and percentages of students of color. What I know now, however, is that the numbers only tell part of the story. I asked about diversity, but what I really wanted to know was “Will I feel safe, included, and accepted in these spaces?”
Regardless of identity, I think that this question is at the root of what students want to know when they try to decide if they will “fit” in on campus. Visiting campus is a great first step. I also recommend following student affairs groups on social media to get a sense of real-time programming the college is putting on for its students. But what signs and signals should students be looking for in all of this? More importantly, how can you tell it’s authentic? Some questions you might want to ask yourself:
- Do you see yourself reflected in student leaders? If not, are you prepared to trailblaze?
- What are some of the more popular/active clubs and organizations on campus?
- Are there affinity groups or intentional spaces for people who share your identity?
- What do students do on weekends? Do they stay on campus? Do they go home? Do they engage with the area around them at all?
Now, when I make decisions about spaces that I want to join, I look for signs of equity and inclusivity. What is the makeup of the decision makers? Who is invited to speak at events? Are they using microphones for in-person programming or subtitles at virtual events? Do they introduce themselves with pronouns? When college representatives talk about Greek life, do they mention Black and multicultural Greek organizations? Here are some follow up questions to help hone in on those ideas:
- How has the administration responded to student-led demonstrations or activism on campus?
- What are some ways the college is working on disrupting anti-Black and/or colonial legacies in higher education?
- Can you speak to the retention and/or graduation rates of students who qualify for financial aid at this institution?
A college degree is an investment, one that no one can ever take away from you. Just like with all investments, it’s important that you’ve thought intentionally about cost and value. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Do I have a solid four-year financial plan in place?
- If I take out loans, will I graduate with a manageable amount of debt given my intended degree and the location I plan to live when I graduate?
- Are there specific experiences that I’m willing to pay more for (small class sizes, a residential campus experience, built in experiential learning opportunities like Agnes Scott’s SUMMIT experience)?
Questions to ask the institution:
- What is the likelihood that I will only pay for four years at this institution as opposed to five or more years?
- What are some of the experiences that are included in the cost of attendance?
- How can I plan for tuition increase?
- Ask about outcomes–job placements and grad school acceptances.
I want to emphasize that this blog post was intended to help you find your fit–not your perfect fit, not your only fit, or even your final fit. I made the right decision when I picked my college–I found a community where I made lifelong friends, where I became the first person in my family to get a passport and studied abroad in Ghana (where I met two Scotties!), found a sisterhood in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., saw the city I grew up in through a completely new lens, graduated with minimal debt, and got a job in the field I wanted right out of college. I’ve also known since my first day working at Agnes Scott that, while my experience would’ve been different, I could’ve thrived here as well.
This acknowledgement is a testament to the fact that there is no perfect college–there is finding your fit and making the college experience your own. You might take some classes that don’t exactly inspire you, you might meet people on a journey you would never choose for yourself, you may have days that make you wonder if you chose correctly, and all of that is okay! The college you choose will not be perfect–no such place exists. I just hope you find a place that gives you more good days than bad, that motivates you to want to study and get involved, a place where you feel supported and challenged in the best ways possible. And if one day you wake up and you realize that the place you thought was home doesn’t meet your expectations anymore, or if your priorities change, you can always try again somewhere else.
Figuring out your fit and asking these questions when it comes to college is just the beginning. I’ve found myself asking similar questions at job interviews, when I’ve joined professional organizations or volunteer opportunities. I hope you find this advice helpful as you navigate this next step in a series of next steps in your life.
Jade Domingue is an Associate Director of Admission at Agnes Scott College, a member of the Board of Directors for the Southern Association of College Admission Counseling (SACAC), and a graduate student at the Andrew Young School of Policy at Georgia State University. A proud New Orleanian and liberal arts alum, Jade graduated from Loyola University New Orleans in 2015 with a B.A. in English and a notebook full of creative writing, finished and otherwise. When she is not singing the praises of Scotties, Jade fills her time reading, solo traveling, discussing intersectional feminism, and spending time with friends, family, and a little black cat named Elphaba.