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  • jzlevison

Putting 'Fit' First

Updated: May 6, 2021

It’s springtime, and as students prepare to hear from universities, it seems like a good time to reflect on “fit.”

Fit is the watchword of educational counselors and others involved in the world of university admissions because it sums up the ideal relationship between a student and a school: it denotes the combination of factors that make a school a good match, and a student likely to feel comfortable and happy there. A school’s academic program, affordability, campus life, size, location, extra-curricular opportunities, facilities, and maybe even food factor into determining whether a student will feel that she belongs.

Ideally, students would have had fit in mind last fall, when they were deciding which schools to apply to. It is an important element in building a university list that ensures a range of potential school choices, every one of which feels right and exciting. But fit should be true north for students (and parents) now, as they begin to navigate their admissions options. How to stay on course?

Prestige. So many of us get caught up in labels and prestige! It’s natural. Big names are often equated with social status, just as a big price tag is often equated with quality. Malcolm Gladwell has proposed the sardonic term, Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder, and a critique to describe this fixation on the most selective schools. But for a student to be happy and successful at university, the choice must be deeply practical and emphatically personal. It must be about truth, not hype. Think about it: you are deciding where you’re going to live, how you’re going to spend your family’s money, who you’re going to live and study with, and the values you’re going to encounter and share. Prestige is seductive, but it has nothing to do with fit, and offers no guarantee that it will help you thrive. Don’t be misled, or misfit. Do research, reflect, and choose the school that fits you best.

The prestige factor may have special potency for international students, who may be unfamiliar with a broad range of U.S. colleges and universities and unable to make in-person visits or access information first-hand. Online resources can be highly curated or incomplete, and schools’ marketing campaigns can be misleading. But the guidance for students is the same: look beneath the label, do research, think deeply about your unique and individual needs, and choose fit.

Agency. Let’s back up a moment. No school, by itself, promises an instant fit, or guarantees that a student will automatically thrive. A good fit requires active participation, and some patience, too. The educational counselor Mark Moody has made this point, using the example of a pair of jeans that are stiff at first, but which, like the university experience, need to be lived in and worn. The analogy is tongue-in-cheek and the price tags are different, but the point is clear: students should understand that fit is a process, that they have some control over it, and that it will take effort and maybe some stretch to get it right.

Choice. The great thing about thinking in terms of fit is that it focuses a student’s priorities while expanding their choices. And choices mean less stress. There is no one right school for anyone; rather, there are about 4,000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., among which several, or even many, offer the ingredients for a terrific fit, and innumerable possibilities for personal happiness and growth.

And if, come April or May, none of your university options seems to fit? In another post I’ll write about gap year, but I'll end this one by noting that Harvard encourages every admitted student to consider taking a year off before matriculating.

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