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College Admissions

Making the Right College Match

While visiting Pomona College, I met a student who loved the non-competitive academic atmosphere that made learning much more enjoyable.

A few weeks later, a student at UC San Diego praised the school’s intense competition, which motivates her to do her best work.

Two great schools. But not great for every student. Both of these students had done their homework, made good matches and are thriving.

When a student is in an environment where he feels good about himself, he’s more likely to be successful academically and socially. It seems so obvious. But in this time of high anxiety about college admission, students and parents often pursue the most popular colleges and lose sight of whether those schools are the best matches.

While your child has to make his own college decisions, you can help by reassuring him that his self-worth is not contingent on being accepted by a particular college. It helps to keep in mind that just like in romantic relationships, there’s more than one potential match out there if you remain open to possibilities. There’s no perfect person or college. But there are some very good schools (and people) that offer opportunities for growth and satisfaction.

Self-assessment is crucial to making a good match. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, chances are you won’t find it. While grades and test scores are a major factor in college admission, a student needs to use his heart as well as his head to find the right school. This means thinking about what kind of college experience he wants.

Is a balance between work and social life important? Some schools, including MIT, University of Chicago and Swathmore, have very demanding workloads.

A student who is more motivated by intellectual curiosity than grades might like Reed College, where students have to ask if they want to know their grades. Or Evergreen State College, where students receive narrative evaluations instead of grades.

Someone who likes to get totally immersed in a subject might like Colorado College or Cornell College (in Iowa), which operate on a block plan, where students take a single subject for three weeks.

For a student who does well when he likes his teacher, but loses motivation if the teacher doesn’t inspire him, it might be important to find a college with small classes, where professors and students have close relationships.

There are many non-academic factors that contribute to a student’s happiness in college. A green, lush environment can be soothing and lower stress levels. For students at small-town colleges, the campus is their world, so why not choose an environment that is aesthetically pleasing?

But perhaps your child thrives on the excitement of an urban environment. Schools like George Washington University, Boston University and NYU offer all the cultural resources of great cities, as well as opportunities for internships at government agencies, publishing houses, theater companies. The downside is that all this involvement in the city means there’s less sense of community on campus.

Social life is a major part of the college experience, and it’s important to find a school where there are people who share some interests and values. A student who likes being around artsy people might be drawn to Bard College. A basketball fanatic might head for Duke University, where students camp out for days to get tickets for games.

These are just some of the factors that go into making a good college match. It takes a little more time and effort, but a student who clarifies his educational goals, values and interests is more likely to find a school that will allow him to grow and realize his potential, as well as enjoy his college years.

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