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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 02/24/2010

How to realistically focus your college search (or don't watch 'Grey's Anatomy' and go pre-med)

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Angel B. Perez, director of admission at Pitzer College in Claremont, Ca.

By Angel B. Perez
With so many different colleges out there and so much information on the web, in book stores, the media and other sources, how does one begin to look for the right college? The college process is about finding the right “fit.” Every college offers an academic program, but finding the school that complements you the most takes work.

I begin by offering you three areas you should focus on in a broad manner, before you begin to narrow your college search.

(1) Academic Fit: Students should look for an institution that is going to meet their academic needs.

College teaching styles are different. Are you the type of student that learns best in a small seminar setting or a large auditorium with lectures and powerpoint presentations?

Everyone’s learning style is different. College size and teaching philosophies will play a role in how well a student will do once he or she arrives on campus. Some colleges have very strict core curriculum requirements while others have none.

Do you want flexibility in choosing coursework or are you the type of student that needs a lot of structure? There are colleges that will accommodate both styles.

It’s also important to choose a college that has a breadth of academic choice. The average college student today changes his or her major three times (or at least considers it!). You wouldn’t believe how many students watch television shows such as "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Scrubs" and think they want to be doctors. Some of those folks take their first organic chemistry course and decide it isn’t for them.

Having a variety of majors to choose from is key because colleges offer majors and concentrations that most students don’t even know about until they get there. Keep an open mind and choose a school with options, because I guarantee there will be a few majors in college you have not been exposed to yet. They could change your academic goals!

(2) Social Fit: College life is not all about academics.

The learning happens in and outside the classroom. Most colleges tend to offer a very active social scene.

What kind of extra-curricular activities do you want to become involved with when you get to college? What kind of clubs and organizations would you like to explore? What are the other students like?

Every school has a different mission and a different feel, and they all attract different kinds of students. It's important that students visit campuses and get a feel for what the students on those campuses care about. What do they spend their time doing? Are they things you would be interested in? When you walk across campus, do you say “I can picture these students as my roommates?”

Exploring the social life of a campus and understanding whether or not you would fit there is a key factor in choosing a college. Remember to keep an open mind. You will change throughout your college years. When you visit campuses to assess the social life and values, ask yourself if these students not only represent who you are, but more importantly, who you want to become.

(3) Financial Fit: The reality is that higher education is an expensive investment.

It’s important that families look at all the different resources they can find (financial aid, scholarships, etc) and figure out what they can possibly afford.

One of the most heart-wrenching experiences that I see students go through is when they get into their dream school and their parents tell them they are not willing to pay that particular amount. It is important that families have honest conversations early on about what they are willing to pay.

Remember that colleges have many resources to help you understand what the expected family contribution to a child’s tuition and fees might be. Reach out to college counselors, financial aid counselors and admissions officers at the colleges you are interested in when you do your research about financing an education. But most importantly, be honest about what you as a family can afford.

In fact, by next year, all colleges and universities will be required to have a financial aid calculator on their websites that will help families determine how much aid they would qualify for. Take advantage of this tool. I find that there is a vast difference between what a family can afford and what it is willing to pay.

As a college admissions director, this is the hardest conversation I have with families every year. A student is admitted, and according to federal financial aid guidelines, the family can afford to pay for the education, but isn't willing to do so because it means a lifestyle change. Be honest with children so that in the end, they are not surprised or disappointed.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at it!

By Valerie Strauss  | February 24, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Next: Passions high over the Pledge


Thank you for this article. In a sea of college admissions articles and books, Mr. Perez has done an excellent job of summing up three important areas. These are indeed good starting points when considering a college.

Especially important is the third area - the necessity of parents to talk to their children before the applications go out. They must explain to them that if they are accepted to a particular school, their attendance will be dependent on whether or not the family can afford it.

Posted by: leadhall | February 24, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

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