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Fit Over Name-Brand: Insight from a Former College Admissions Officer

By Rachel, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

It is an interesting time, to say the least, in college admissions. Among the now normal feelings of stress and anxiety, we are seeing active desperation. It casts shadows over normally sound judgment and overrides notions of ethics, legality, and genuine ambition in the name of achieving something perceived as necessary.

The college admissions scandal, and the parents facing criminal charges for paying large sum bribes, is the most pressing evidence of this era of education-related panic. However, every year we see examples of clouded judgment leading to other, not as obvious, questionable decisions, like only applying to extremely selective schools or believing that “throwing your hat in the ring” is a sound admissions strategy, all in the name of getting children into the “right” schools.

Why Fit Matters
But what does the right school really look like? Many of us would agree that the children of the college admissions scandal, many of whom now face uncertain futures, would have been just fine at almost any other institution in the country. Imagine if those families had taken the time to find schools that fit the student’s needs and goals, dedicating their resources to that search as opposed to pursuing the now notorious “side door” opening. Things would be a lot quieter but, then again, we wouldn’t have the chance to examine how we got here and what we can do to reroute.

As a former admissions officer and someone who now works directly with students, I am here to say fit, above all else, should guide every applicant’s strategy. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that not every student will do well or be happy at the most well-known colleges and universities. Prioritizing schools that match a specific student’s needs and interests is the best thing any parent can do. Fit is the foundation for a good college experience. It requires a commitment to analysis and reflection, but ultimately ensures a student’s abilities will be strengthened and nurtured during their time in college.

When families focus on name recognition, they disregard a multitude of institutions that may be better aligned with a student’s goals. Students and their families must recognize that only applying to schools that “people have heard of” is not the right priority in the search for an intellectual and social home. There are over 3,000 four-year colleges in the US and each one stands to be a great fit for someone reading this. In order to find these authentic best choice options, the college search should be student-centered, and very individualized, from the start.

How to Prioritize Fit
Parents need to give their students plenty of time to determine what they’re really looking for and this means starting early. During sophomore year, try using a list of schools based on academic interests or possible majors as a jumping off point. Lawrence University, a small liberal arts university in Wisconsin, makes quite a few lists for Environmental Science. A little more digging and you’ll learn they have a high percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering. For a student interested in STEM, who wants the smaller college experience and access to varied academics, this might be a great fit. Set your kids up to go down the rabbit hole of college searches.

Along with the nitty gritty research, students can’t shy away from asking themselves the big questions. The college search process, when done correctly, is about self-discovery and learning what matters most to you. Do you want to participate in classroom discussions or would you rather take in a lecture? Do you want the library or the football stadium to be a social hub? While it’s not always one or the other, it is so important to determine ideal academic and social experiences.

As students reflect on their own preferences, they must also delve deeply when learning about prospective choices. Analyze easy-to-find statistics to get a sense of what’s the norm at any school. On a recent visit to Johns Hopkins University, I learned that approximately 80% of students across all academic disciplines do research. In contrast, at nearby Goucher College, nearly the entire student body goes abroad. What does this say about a school’s institutional priorities? If you had to choose, would you prefer to ensure a chance to research or study abroad? The only way to find institutions that invest in what you care about is by intertwining detailed research with personal reflection and analysis.

College is so much more than a name. It’s a major transition and an opportunity for personal growth and autonomy. Instead of worrying that “no one” has heard of a specific school you’re interested in, think instead of the people you’ll meet once you’re there. They might just change your life! Take it from me, the only graduate in my large high school class to head off to a small liberal arts school in Greensboro, North Carolina—sometimes the best choices are the ones the people around you don’t make.

It takes only a few minutes to read a basic college ranking list but countless hours over several years to dig deep and pinpoint your personal best choices. Families should take a big step away from the panic-inducing attachment to name-brand schools and invest time in a student-led college search that will result in educational opportunities tailored to who they are and the person they will become. You can’t rely on a name for that.

At IvyWise, our students are at the heart of everything we do. We work with students to help them identify and apply to the best-fit schools where they will be successful and happy. We believe that there are a number of schools where students can thrive, and while for some that might include some highly-selective universities, for many others the best-fit schools are those hidden gems that might take time and guidance to discover. For us it’s about spending time to get to know students, their interests, passions, values, and goals. Working ethically and genuinely with students is our top priority. For more information on our college counseling services and how we can help you navigate the college admissions process in a stress-free manner, contact us today.