April 21, 2020
When starting your college search, there are plenty of criteria you should use to help narrow your top choices —things like finances, location and culture all play a role — but as is most often the case for achieving your educational goals, the best place to start can be finding your best academic fit.
You want a school that offers the major (or majors) and classes that interest you. While many students have an idea of their major when they begin researching colleges, it's totally normal if you're still unsure — finding a major can be tough, and you don't need to map out your entire career in your junior year of high school in order to find your best-fit colleges and universities.
The format of a classroom is just as important to keep in mind as content. Academics at liberal arts colleges that matriculate Bachelor of Art or Bachelor of Science degrees are often based on professor-student discussion in seminar-style classes. Larger institutions that offer a broad range of degrees and departments are likely to offer liberal arts style courses as well as larger formats: lectures, labs and breakout sessions with teaching assistants. Choosing a college where the courses on offer match your learning style will set you up to succeed. (Our book of The Best 385 Colleges features a variety of ranking lists, some of which — like the most accessible professors and the least accessible— can be viewed online.)
To the same point, look for academic support resources you might need: Most campuses have writing centers (often dedicated specifically to first-year students in required college writing courses) and peer-to-peer tutoring available to all students. If you plan to formally apply for support services, be sure to contact that academic support center on campus to review requirements, the approval process and available resources. This consideration can also present you with a lot of information to digest, so guides like The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences can be another useful tool.
Not all academic opportunities happen in the classroom, either: Go beyond department descriptions to look at any dedicated resources, opportunities to travel here or abroad, or experiential learning centers on campus (and make sure they're available to undergraduates!).
- Students at University of Alabama's College of Communication and Information Science can gain valuable professional experience at the Digital Media Center.
- In Maine, Bowdoin College owns several acres on a nearby island, home to the Schiller Coastal Studies Center, providing hands-on research tools for environmental studies and biology students.
- At Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., the Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership is available to undergraduate students through the CWEL program. Scholars work with “near-peer" mentors and gain professional competencies like presentation and negotiation skills.
These are just three examples — each of these schools offers tons of other opportunities, and every college and university in the country has unique resources and programs.
Does all of the above sound aggressively aspirational? Good! Aspiration is the secret sauce that helps you stay motivated and engaged through the long college application process, and it can help shine a spotlight on your application for admission officers. Ultimately, though, academic fit isn't based solely on aspirations: Eventually, you will need to look at the application data each university releases annually and compare it to your own stats. Once all of that is in perspective, it'll be easy to move on to other elements of finding your best fit school.