Beyond Rankings: What to Look for in a College that Fits You Best

By BigFuture and The Jed Foundation (JED)

Well-Being Community

There are some 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., which gives you a lot of choices for finding the college that is a good fit for you.

Often, people think about college from an academic and financial perspective, but there are other, and sometimes other important considerations that don’t show up in the rankings. For example, “Is this campus the right fit for me?” or “What is the best learning environment for me?” or “What do I need on a college campus to grow and thrive?”

A good fit can mean different things to different people, but it generally means a place where you will feel comfortable and engaged—both inside and outside the classroom. A good fit and feeling a sense of belonging is important not only for your own satisfaction, but research shows that it positively impacts school engagement, your mental health, persistence, and educational outcomes. That’s why it’s important to look at the big picture when you’re choosing where to apply and—eventually—go.

How to Start

Do an Informal Survey

By the end of your senior year, you will undoubtedly be a little tired of answering questions about your college search and decisions, but, at the start, it can be really exciting to find out about other people’s college experiences. Of course, you will talk with your school counselor, but also ask your parents and guardians, family members, older siblings, friends, and mentors about what they valued in their college experience.

Equally important is thinking through what matters to you now and in the future. Below are a few different ways to think about how a college may be a good fit for you.

What Matters to You?

College Setting

Where do you feel most at home? Do you like the excitement of a big group with lots of different people to meet, or do you prefer smaller gatherings in which you can get to know a few people really well? Does a big city sound invigorating or exhausting? Do you need to be near nature or have ready access to cultural events? Thinking about the kinds of settings you prefer can help you narrow your search.

Diversity of the Student Body and Community

College may be the first time you will live and learn with people who are different from you. Do you want to go to a college where most people are like you, or are you looking for a place where you will have opportunities to get to know and learn from people who are different from you? One thing to keep in mind: One survey found that students who reported interacting with a more diverse group of students were twice as likely to say their degree was worth the cost and more likely to be engaged in their jobs once they graduated.

Sharing Culture, Race, or Identity with Other Students

It can be equally—if not more—important to find a college that supports, affirms, and respects your ethnic, racial, religious or cultural background or one that actively affirms your sexual orientation and gender identity.

You can find out the demographic profile for each school you’re considering on BigFuture, and you can also look for schools with active student groups that share a similar background, identity, or interests. Most schools have comprehensive lists of clubs and organizations on their websites for students to access before they get on campus. There are also some great online resources, that can help you identify whether a college or university is a safe and affirming space for you. Campus Pride, for example, is a great resource to find LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities.

Academic and Nonacademic Support Services

College courses and college life in general can get challenging, and you may want to ensure that your campus has academic, counseling, and career support services. Academic services might look like tutoring or writing centers, whereas career support might include résumé workshops, mock interviews, and career planning. Many colleges are additionally equipped with counseling services to support your overall well-being. It’s helpful to think about what kind of support you may need and narrow down your college choices from there.

Good Mental Health Support

This area is often overlooked, but it can be critical to your comfort and success at school. It will be really important to take care of your emotional well-being at school since everyone faces challenges and stressors at some point. It’s good to know whether there will be accessible care and mental health resources if you need them. Here are three things you can do to be prepared:

  • You can usually get lots of information about campus health, counseling, and other student services on your school’s website. During orientation find out where these offices are located on campus, and what their hours are.
  • Find out what services are available through student support offices. Are they free? Are there limits? Do you need the school insurance plan to use them (usually not)?
  • Put the important numbers in your phone: medical office, counseling, campus security, and advising are good numbers to have on your speed dial.

If you already are being treated for a physical or mental health condition, you should make sure your campus or local community has the resources needed to help you stay healthy. If you take medication, for instance, you need to make sure there is on-campus or near-campus access to a prescribing provider you can see. As part of your research, ask whether the campus clinics are free and how many visits students can receive.

What's Next

When you have your list of must-haves and nice-to-haves, go explore colleges on BigFuture, look at their college profile including videos from current students of what the college is like, and start saving a college list. Once you’ve found a few colleges you’re interested in, follow them on social media, subscribe to their newsletters if they have them, and find out if anyone you know is an alum. You can also connect with college admissions representatives directly through BigFuture Live —virtual events on college and career planning—to explore which colleges may be a good fit for you.

Ask All the Questions

Use this helpful guide from Indiana University, as well as the priorities you’ve identified and any of the questions below that matter to you, to create a list of questions to ask tour guides, admissions officers, faculty, current students, and alums.

  • Do you feel like your school is a place where people care about one another?
  • Do you think students feel a sense of belonging inside and outside the classroom?
  • Do you think students who are in the minority because of race, socioeconomic background, or identity feel at home and like they belong?
  • Are there good supports for students when they struggle?

It may feel hard at first, but you will soon find that most folks are happy to share information to help you find the right fit. And, as you gather info and opinions from others, remember that this choice is yours. Trust your gut. You know yourself better than anyone else.