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  • Michelle Silbernagel

The Most Important Question to Guide Your College Search

Part I of the College Research Series.

Before Fit: Ask Why?

You’ve probably heard the advice “find your fit” when it comes to college list building.

It’s the (great) advice given to students to help ensure they end up at a college where they will be happy and successful. The idea is that students should identify their most important priorities or “fit factors” in a college (size, location, academics, culture, climate, affordability etc.) and then find colleges that offer those qualities.

Most people think that defining what makes a good college fit is the first step in the college list research process. It’s actually the second step. The first consideration is not What? but Why?


Wait, but Why?

College is a huge investment of effort, time, and money. So before teens think about what characteristics they want the colleges on their list to have, I suggest they consider why they are going to college in the first place. The answer to why, will guide the discovery of what. Why are you willing to invest (or let your parents invest) so much money in a college education? Why are you willing to leave your friends and family, move hundreds of miles away to sleep in a single bed in a 200 square-foot room in 10-degree weather. Why are you willing to spend another four years of your life studying and working hard for a particular degree?

Rick Clark and Brennan Barnard discuss the importance of the Why College question in their book The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together - a must-read for families in the college admissions process. They encourage teens to think beyond typical responses like “because they are the national champion” or “because my parents went there” or “because it is ranked #3.” The Why College answer, Clark and Barnard explain, is what will get the first-year student through that cold November night that every student has -- the painful moment when they realize the shiny college brochure pictures don’t match their current reality of doing laundry alone at midnight or leaving the library at 3 a.m. bleary-eyed and over-caffeinated or feeling homesick when they hear a song that reminds them of high school.

Clark and Barnard have been in admissions for years (Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech and Barnard is Dean of Admissions for the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard). In their new book, the authors remind families that at some point every student will have a moment, likely brought on by lack of sleep, where they feel uncertain -- maybe about their college choice, or that they don’t seem to have it at all together compared to other kids. This can be a brief and surmountable moment, though, if they have considered the why college question first (and by that I mean now). These students will find their footing because they will have already answered their late-night, insecurity inspired “why am I doing this” question. They will have a personal touchstone that goes deeper than Husky love, championship teams, national rankings or even “because it’s just what you do after high school.” They will just need to remind themselves of the reason. Or they can call you and you can help remind them. The tough times at college are bearable if founded on personal goals beyond family legacy, national rankings, college sweatshirts and inspirational slogans or championships teams.

Consider Your Why

We are currently living in a time when a clear understanding of “why college” has been put front and center. Prospective and current college students across the country are grappling with a range of possibilities for the fall and how they line up with their college expectations and priorities. Having a clear “why college” answer can help with the decision process. Take a moment to reflect on your why. Here’s a list of common Why College answers. It is likely several of these will ring true. What others come to mind?


  • I'm not ready to get a job yet

  • I want to study math (or some other subject)

  • I’m not sure what I want to study and I want to explore options

  • I want to make more/new friends

  • I want to improve my potential career earnings

  • I want to keep playing a certain sport

  • I want to engage intellectually with peers and professors

  • I want to have hands-on internship opportunities

  • I want to be with my friends

  • I want the college-residential life experience

  • I want to be independent

  • I want to become educated for a particular career

  • I want to be exposed to different kinds of people/perspectives/worldviews

  • I want to have fun

  • My parents insist

  • I want the personal challenge

  • I want to see a different part of the country

  • I want to contribute to society, to better humankind

  • I don’t have anything better to do

  • I enjoy learning

Teens and parents can do this exercise together and compare answers. Do they match up? If not, what needs to happen for there to be some common ground?

From Why? to Where?


The answers to the Why College question guide the college research and list development phase. With your Why as your foundation, you can start to identify the “what”-- those unique to you characteristics the colleges on your list should have so that you can be happy and successful. For example, if your answer to Why College is “Because I want to be a journalist,” it makes sense to look at schools that offer a Journalism major.


Are you considering a pre-health major? You'll want to research colleges with good academic advising opportunities to be sure you're on track to achieve your goal. Or if you are not sure what you want to study yet, look for schools that offer an exploratory major or liberal arts and sciences foundation. If it’s “Because I’ve lived in the same place my entire life and want to experience something different,” you’ll want to pay attention to where the colleges on your list are located and the diversity of their student populations both in general and in comparison to where you live now.

Take the next step with Part 2 of this College Research series where we dive into how to identify your college priorities.

What if you are not sure you want to or are ready to go to college?

It’s okay and normal to be nervous, to feel a little academically unprepared, or just be unsure of yourself when it comes to college. If you feel this way and are reluctant to start the application process because of it, be honest and upfront about it with your family. Read that Clark and Bernard book I mentioned. It offers great advice on communicating as a family. See if you can reach a common ground. Maybe apply to a few colleges in the fall of your senior year, with the understanding that you have time to process your decision and future plans...you won’t decide where—or if—you’ll go to college until the end of the school year. You can also begin to explore other options, such as a gap year or a different vocational path. Then, come May of your senior year you will have a full range of options. A lot can change in six to eight months -- we’ve certainly seen that this year! Applying to a few schools keeps your options open.

Like what you've read? Want more like this but in a shorter format? Subscribe to my monthly newsletter -- Touchstone Tips and get timely, relevant info about college admissions delivered straight to your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

© Touchstone College Advising 2020

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