As a former high education administrator and now a college admissions and career transition consultant, I know firsthand the critical importance of "fit" to a successful college experience. 

My career as an independent consultant was inspired by my experience as an academic advisor and the heartbreak I felt for students who arrived at my office upset because, despite educational opportunities, the lack of campus fit left them struggling rather than thriving. I now partner with students (and their families) to conduct a thoughtful and thorough process of exploration to understand campus culture and environment using a combination of online research and, whenever possible, a campus visit.

When conducting research, I encourage students to explore campus culture on three levels to determine the best fit: 

Institutional Level: As a starting point, students and families should review and reflect on the institution’s mission and value statements, history, and strategic plan, to understand the context of the institution’s heritage, how it evolved to the institution it is today, and what its vision and priorities are for the future. 

Students should also read the president’s and other key leaders’ biographies. These provide insight into the backgrounds and values of the leadership driving the campus vision and culture. (e.g. Does the president have a business, science or liberal arts background? Has she/he been affiliated with a political or religious organization? Does he/she volunteer in the community or serve on nonprofit or corporate boards?)

Explore recent press releases and scan the institution's major event calendar. These resources will offer an understanding of the institution’s values and priorities based on accomplishments it is touting (e.g. cutting-edge research, student achievements, institutional recognition, etc.); the campus growth and direction (e.g. What are they raising money for? What departments’ buildings are being renovated or built?); any crises it is mitigating, as well as the types of people and events the student will have access to.  

Students should ask themselves:

  • What community values and environmental factors are most important to me?
  • Do the institution's values align with my values? 
  • Do the speakers, events and opportunities I will have access to provide opportunity to hear and learn from perspectives both the same as and different than my own? 

Department Level: Similarly, within the student’s given interests, review the relevant school and departmental websites. Read the departmental overview, the letter from and biography of the dean and department head, the press releases, student highlights, and explore the faculty research areas. 

Assess how the views, research areas, and opportunities align with your interests, values, and beliefs. If a school visit is possible, arrange an opportunity to sit in on a class and/or meet with a department advisor or faculty member to learn firsthand about the student experience, supports and opportunities available, and to ask about issues important to your values. For example, if the student wants to pursue a career in science but has deep concern for animal protection and rights, ask about the department’s use of lab animals and their animal care and testing practices.

Student/Community Level:  When exploring the student/community culture, start by reviewing the student life website. Explore the list of campus resource centers and organizations. Look at the student government structure to see how students are given a voice on campus to expand their skills in leadership and citizenship.

  • Are there clubs/organizations for multiple political parties/religions/cultural groups etc.? How active are the clubs? Do they have regular events or meetings? 
  • Do the clubs welcome students of differing political persuasions/religions etc.? 
  • Do the clubs of different ideologies ever come together to hold dialogues to explore their beliefs or discuss different perspectives on key topics/current events? 
  • What percentage of the student body participates in Greek Life?
  • How does the campus and the student body engage with the surrounding community?

Beyond the clubs, review what resources the institution is offering to support these student communities:

  • Is there a center or office to foster the student's spiritual development/religious beliefs? 
  • Are there centers to support various cultural/ethnic groups, LGBTQ students, women?
  • Is there an Interfaith or Multicultural Center offering programs and services to facilitate dialogue and difficult conversations? 
  • For political exploration and growth, check out the Political Science department's course offerings and campus events.
  • Consider how prominent a role athletics play on campus. For example, are most of the photos of student community and social life set at athletic events?

Another important resource to consult is campus media - both the institution's official media (i.e. media relations, social media channels, etc.) and the student media (e.g. the student newspaper and other blogs/publications, student TV station and campus radio). Plugging into the student voice will provide insight into the issues and leanings of the campus to help your student determine fit.

Lastly, check out information about the institution’s city, town or region:

  • What is the history and cultural heritage of the region?
  • What are environmental factors -- city vs. rural? mountains vs. plains? coastal vs. landlocked? climate?
  • Who are the major employers in the region?

Look up the area’s visitor’s bureau to understand the cultural and recreational opportunities available off-campus. Review a map and both the university and region’s transportation sites to understand how easy/difficult it is to get into the nearest city and/or explore the region.

The college search and school list development process is critical to successful college admissions and overall experience. By identifying schools that align with the student’s values, passions and goals, the student will be able to better articulate their interest in a particular university, creating both a stronger application and setting them on the path for exciting journey at a campus that feels most like home.