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Picking Your Best-Fit Colleges Can You Get In, and Are You Sure You Want To?

Typing “where should I go to college?” into Google’s search engine yields over one billion hits — and while we’d encourage students to do that and then explore some of the “first page” results, mainly for learning purposes, it’s a far too cumbersome way to find a meaningful answer to the question. Fortunately, we’re here to get you started the right way. We’ll share with you our more than 30 years of experience in helping students find their best-fit colleges by discussing four important parameters you should consider in order to narrow your choices:

  1. the school’s typical admitted freshmen profile,

  2. the type of school (large public, mid-size private, specialty, etc.),

  3. the school’s size and location, and

  4. student culture on campus.

Part of the title to this blog reads “Can You Get In,” and that’s where a school’s typical profile of admitted freshmen comes into play: Almost all schools’ provide data on the mid-50th percentile GPAs and SAT/ACT scores for admitted freshmen. For example, the University of Florida’s class of 2021, mid-50% score profiles include these ranges: core weighted GPA of 4.3 to 4.6, SAT of 1280 to 1430, and ACT of 28 to 32. That means that 25% of admitted freshmen scored 33 or above on the ACT, and 25% scored 27 or below. Students’ chances of gaining admission to UF – or any other school, for that matter – are greatly enhanced if their GPAs and SAT/ACT scores are at or above the midpoint of these ranges.

The data make it clear that scoring at or below the low end of those mid-50% ranges doesn’t mean that students have no chance of admission, but that’s where “Are You Sure You Want To” get in comes into play: Students who scored at or below the low end of those mid-50% ranges, and still manage to gain admission, are going to have classes with other students who, for the most part, out-performed them in high school.

The small minority of those students who are actually smart under-performers who’ll do better in college when surrounded by peers who out-performed them in high school will be comfortable – and might actually thrive – in that academic environment. But those students who aren’t part of that small cohort risk going to school for four years at a college where they don’t feel that they “belong” academically, which sounds more like a prison sentence than it does a good life experience; they might well be setting themselves up for failure.

A second factor to consider beneath the “are you sure you want to get in” umbrella is the type and size of the school. Public universities tend to be somewhat impersonal and large — and some of them are huge: What might be the nation’s largest in terms of total enrollment is the University of Central Florida, which has over 66,183 total students, including 56,972 undergraduates. Public universities tend to have larger class sizes – there could be 300 or more students in lower-division lecture courses – but offer a broader choice of majors than do most private universities, which tend to be smaller in total enrollment, have smaller class sizes, usually offer easier access to professors, and might have a particular focus, such as liberal arts, fine arts, engineering, or business.

A school’s location and environment should also be a major consideration: If you want to stay close to home, in-state schools may be obvious targets (although I can get to Boston University faster than I can to Florida State University from my home in Palm Beach county). But your in-state schools, even if they’re several hours from home, may actually seem too close if you want to “spread your wings” and experience more independence. Other geographic considerations include that area of the country and the relative size of the community in which schools are located. For example, while some students want to avoid cold winters, other students look forward to crisp autumns and snowball fights. And just as some students want to go to school in the heart of a major metropolitan area (it’s important to ask yourself how you’d take advantage of urban life), others favor a small, college town environment where they can get quite involved in on-campus activities. Some favor the mountains, others the beach. Consider how you’d get from home to a college campus as well – drive? Fly? Change planes? Distance from the local airport?

The last of the four factors to consider as you narrow your choices is the student culture on campus. If you’re a highly social person who likes to party, there are colleges that can accommodate you. In fact, the Princeton Review actually ranks them based on interviews with students, and uses student reviews, among other inputs, to rank schools with the best student life. Similarly, there are schools with a strong religious ethos, and schools at which students and faculty tend to have either strong conservative or strong liberal views. Googling the cultural things that interest you is a good place to start, but it’s no substitute for visiting the campuses to “feel the vibe,” talk to current students, and read comments about the schools from current and former students. Some great websites for learning more about a college, in addition to a college’s own website and its social media sites, include these:

Score at the top

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