How to Find a Good College Fit?
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What is the first year of college really like?

According to a report from the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2011 there were over 4500 colleges in the United States. 2,870 of these schools qualify as four-year institutions. While some schools may emphasize engineering or technical curriculum, others may emphasize a liberal arts curriculum or even a combination of both. Therefore, you need to ask the right questions and gather information to find the college where you will thrive. Here are the steps to get you started:

School

A school is a good fit if it can stimulate your academic learning and offers programs that interest you. When you explore colleges, you want to bear in mind that there are many options available:

• Four-year colleges or universities
• Community college

Four-year academic institutes include public universities, private universities, and liberal arts colleges that offer bachelor degrees. Classes in public and state universities tend to be larger whereas classes in private and liberal arts colleges are smaller. Although tuition for private universities can be higher, many actually offer substantial financial aids to their students.

Most community colleges accept all high school graduates. They offer associate degrees and also serve an alternative gateway for high school students to transfer to four-year universities, such as University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU), and liberal arts colleges.

Size

School size is an important factor that can help you narrow down the list. Depending on the size of the college you attend, your undergraduate experience can vary significantly. This is why:

Big universities (>15,000 students) typically have a wide variety of majors and courses, a broad range of academic programs and student activities, well-funded sport programs, distinguished faculties, and modern research facilities. Their introductory classes may contain hundreds of students, which suggest a high student/faculty ratio. Thus, students who take the initiative to visit their professors during office hours and to attend various student organization meetings tend to acclimate to college more easily.

In contrast, small colleges (< 2000 students) have a smaller class size, which provide a more intimate learning environment. Students have many hands-on learning opportunities, experience personal attention from teachers and advisers, and feel a stronger sense of community. Also, professors teach most of courses. Despite small colleges may offer less number of majors, some schools allow individually designed majors.

Location

Next, you can set a distance of how far you want to be from home. Nowadays, 38% college students attend a school within 50 miles from home and 15% within 51-100 miles from home as reported by Higher Educational Institute at UCLA. Choosing a college close to home can be an economical choice as it makes college tuition more affordable. However, setting a tight geographic constraint can potentially reduce the chance of finding a good college fit down the road. Furthermore, learning in a new environment can facilitate personal growth and professional development. Keep an open mind when you think about the following:

• Do you want to visit home on weekends or only on break?
• Do you want stick with a familiar setting or try something new?
• Do you stay in state? Some out-of-state schools can be more affordable with financial assistance.

Campus Setting

Another step toward finding your right college is to decide which campus setting you prefer – rural, suburban, or urban.

Rural campuses are located in the countryside and small towns, often close to wilderness area and farms. Most students living on campus show a sense of college community. Rural campuses provide access to many outdoor learning opportunities, such as forestry and environmental science, and on-campus transportation for students.
Urban campuses are built within the cities that have centralized public transport system. Many of these campuses offer practical off-campus learning opportunities to explore the real world through internships and cooperative classes. With various entertainments on and off campus, urban colleges tend to attract culturally diverse students.

Suburban campuses combine the best features of urban and rural campuses. Public transportation is readily available. Since suburban campuses often have connection to nearby cities and towns, there are job and internship opportunities around the area.

Majors & Other Opportunities

A college major is a subject area that you will specialize in and spend most of your time studying. Many students think that they have to decide a major before applying for college. In fact, you have plenty of time to determine your major. At many four-year colleges, you will declare a major in your sophomore year, and many students switch their major more than once. These questions can help you explore your area of interest and major:

• Do you have any favorite school subjects?
• What do you like to doing outside of class?
• Do you have a career interest?
• If you want to apply for post-bachelor degrees, which majors can help you achieve your goal?

In addition, you want to investigate if there are any research or internship programs available in the universities. They are great learning opportunities to undergraduate students to gain hand-on experiences on relevant subjects and work on cutting-edge research projects with faculty members or industrial researchers to build up their resume. Having such valuable experience can make you a competitive applicant in job search after graduation.

Campus Activities

Social scene is also a crucial part of your college experience, so you should explore activities available at the colleges you are considering. There are numerous occasions for meeting new friends, including through Greek organizations, athletics, campus organizations, events, and traditions. For example, colleges usually offer a range of sports levels. If you want to continue playing your favorite sports in high school, you can join the intramural or club team. Moreover, participating in clubs and school organizations is a great way for students to discover new interests, and build skills that could help shape your future.

All colleges have their benefits. Hence, you should stay open-minded and ask your friends and school counselor to share their college experience. Remember, there are many colleges that can be great fit for each student.

By Cheryl Leung , ThinkTank Learning Admissions Consultant and Academic Counselor