Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Want Better Counseling? Talk About Fit

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

One of the key components of good college counseling is being overlooked by students, parents, the media, and even by some counselors.  It’s the concept of “fit”, or the idea that students will be more successful at some colleges because the campus just feels right to them.  Just like athletes perform better at home than on the road, and writers have favorite places to go to get inspired, students can learn more from their classes and the world around them if their college has the right blend of support, encouragement, and challenge.  That’s fit.

It’s easy to see why fit gets so little press:  it can’t be measured by test scores or grades; it doesn’t lie in the number of books in the library or how it’s viewed by other college presidents, and there’s rarely a connection between fit and the cost of the college. Every student brings different expectations, values, and interests to the college search, so the issue of fit is hard to measure; like buying new shoes or listening to music, you may not be able to describe what you’re looking for, but you know it when it’s there.

The idea of fit is an important one to introduce early to parents and students, before they set up an evaluation system of colleges that’s only based on test scores, grades, and what they hear at the local coffee shop or country club. Most parents can relate to fit by comparing a college search to buying a house; you can sort by neighborhood, price range, and square footage, but still end up with one house that feels like home and six that feel like you’re living on Mars.  Since sixteen year-olds don’t usually buy houses, it’s better to talk to them about favorite bands; if it has a good beat and is easy to dance to, chances are that college is worth careful consideration.

Fit is especially important to keep in mind with students and parents who want to attend the super-selective colleges that admit fewer than 10% of the students who apply.  More families are putting together college lists that only include these low-admitting colleges; the thinking here is applying to 14 colleges that each admit 10% of their students means the student has a 140% chance one of those colleges will admit them.

When presented with this list, counselors are wise to ask why the student has selected these colleges—and once you ask, don’t be surprised if the response is “These are a good fit.”  Parents are hoping the mystique of fit will throw you off your game enough to end the conversation then and there—which is why you need to keep asking questions.  “That’s good to know”, you respond, “Tell me about what you’ve found at these schools that makes you feel that way.”

At this point, the conversation can turn to a discussion of qualities—and that’s the key to success.  By asking the student to describe the comfort they feel at a college that’s right for them, it’s easy to translate the feeling of fit to qualities that can be found at other colleges— including colleges where the student’s chances of admission are greater than being struck by lightning.  This gives the student the opportunity to broaden the range and array of colleges they’re applying to, while creating options the student can consider, accept, and even be excited about.

Data can be helpful in a college search, but when it comes to finding the next school that will offer the best chances for growth and support, there’s no place like fit. 

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