Choosing a College: How to Find the Right Academic Fit

Choosing a College: How to Find the Right Academic Fit

Choosing a college isn’t a quick or easy decision for most students. Students must consider five key features of a school when choosing a college: Academic fit, Social fit, Financial fit, Vocational fit, and Cultural fit. 


Choosing a college based on academic fit


Today, we’re going to discuss academic fit. As you can imagine, choosing a college with the right academic is critical. But what does it mean?

Academic fit refers to how the faculty teaches, the academic priorities of the college, and what the learning environment is like. It also refers to the distinct curriculum types a college may offer. A complete review of the college’s website and a campus visit can help with determining the academic fit and choosing a college that’s right for you. 

Make the most of your campus visit with these five top tips. 

Before even taking your first steps, it helps to understand the bigger picture of how colleges are distinguished by their different academic curriculums. In my experiences working with families, few give consideration to these distinctions. Often, they aren’t even aware they exist.

From a college admissions perspective, students should at least be aware of these distinctions when they write their application essays or interview at colleges. Once admitted, the college that the student attends can make a significant difference in the classes that students can take in college and their satisfaction with the academic rigor.

So, what are the three types of academic curriculums? Open, core, or distributed.

Let’s briefly discuss each type and their key differences, along with colleges to explore.


Is an open curriculum the right academic fit?


There are only a hand-full of colleges and universities that provide a truly open curriculum.

This means students are free to choose which classes they want to take. There are no general education requirements and students can design their own path to a major or concentration. There may be specific requirements within a particular major, but students are free to pick from any range of classes.

Some schools with an Open Curriculum:

The thing is, not every student can handle an open curriculum. Sure, these colleges may have the brand name. But students must be very disciplined to navigate four years of undergraduate in a school with an open curriculum.


Is Columbia University’s Core the right academic fit?


The use of a Core curriculum started in 1919 at Columbia College. It remains their primary approach to higher education. A Core curriculum means there are specific courses all students must take, regardless of their majors. (In fact, when you visit the Columbia campus, a building lists the authors of core readings for all undergrads.)

The idea is to provide every student with a broad range of knowledge in many subjects and to support intellectual growth.

Other colleges with a core curriculum:

  • Auburn University
  • Boston University
  • Purdue University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Notre Dame


Academic fit can be different at most colleges


A distributed curriculum is a hybrid of a core and open curriculum.

There aren’t specific classes that every student is required to take. But, there are guidelines to the number of classes that each student must take in a given academic area. This curriculum provides the student with the flexibility to choose a class that interests them. At the same time, still providing a structure to their education.

Most colleges in the US have distribution requirements. What I enjoyed about a distributed curriculum when I attended Stanford is that I took classes in areas that I may not have learned about otherwise. For example, as an undergraduate, I studied Calculus, Petroleum Engineering, Philosophy. But I fell in love with Linguistics (a topic I had never heard of before college!).

A photo from my trip to Georgetown University

Colleges with distributed curriculum:

  • Bowdoin College
  • Cornell University
  • Dickinson College
  • Georgetown University
  • Northwestern University
  • Reed College
  • Stanford University
  • Swarthmore College
  • University of Tampa
  • Wellesley

Now, the next step to take with this insight is to match the needs and interests of the student. Let’s say a teen has an interest in engineering and doesn’t enjoy writing. Then, it’s important to research colleges that offer engineering with little to no writing requirements for graduation. An official campus visit is the next step before applying if a teen is still interested after the research is completed. 

How have you helped your teen with finding the right academic fit?

If you’re looking for one-on-one guidance to help you find the school with the right academic fit, click here to learn about my webinar.


Want to see more posts like this? Don’t miss these: 


7 College Essentials Worth Investing In For Your Freshman Year

Top 10 must-dos for college-bounds juniors

7 ways to support your child during the college application process

Five Tips for Teaching Your Child to Love Reading (and How This Can Help Them Get Into College!)

Summer reading for teens who hate reading

What if I told you helping your child develop a love for reading is one of the best gifts you can give?

It will benefit your child throughout her life—teens who love reading have a better likelihood of getting into the college of their choice. (More on that later.)

One of the first questions I ask college-bound students is, “Tell me about the last book you read for pleasure.” 

Usually, there’s a pause. Then they mention a book that’s clearly from a school reading list like “Catcher in the Rye” or “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

“Really? For pleasure?” I ask. 

Once I call them out on it, they usually confess that the last one was a Harry Potter novel from several years ago. 

My bolder students will come out and admit that they “hate” reading.

Over the years, about 25 percent of the students I’ve worked with have been avid readers who truly love diving into a good book. 

Those are the students who’ve been admitted to the most selective colleges, like Stanford, Harvard, University of Chicago, MIT, and similar.

What’s interesting is that when I ask parents if their child is a reader, about 75 percent say their teen “used to be” a reader. 

When I then ask them when their child stopped reading, the most common response is: “Sixth grade.”

Why teens stop reading in grade 6.

There are several reasons why teens stop reading:

  • Screen time
  • Pressure to “be cool”
  • Friends don’t read or talk about books
  • Parents stop reading aloud to them

Yes, I did suggest that parents should continue reading aloud even through high school! 

Why parents should read aloud to their children (even when they’re teenagers!)

Reading aloud to your teen is a great way to model reading and expose your teen to an expanded vocabulary and important ideas. 

It goes back to the James Baldwin quote: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Middle School Reading List

To help your child develop a love of reading in middle school, try offering the following books.

[mk_table style=”style2″ el_class=”mytable”]

6th Inkheart
Cornelia Funke
The Cay
Theodore Taylor
Gary Paulsen
Among the Hidden
Margaret Peterson Haddix and Cliff Nielsen
  Mysterious Benedict Society
Trenton Lee Stewart
7th Chains
Laurie Halse Anderson
Chasing Vermeer
Blue Balliett
  Al Capone Does My Shirts
Gennifer Choldenko
Eoin Colfer
  Code Orange
Caroline B. Cooney
8th The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Red Kayak
Priscilla Cummings
  Hattie Big Sky
Kirby Larson
Scott Westerfeld
  To Be A Slave
Julius Lester


What is your teen reading this summer?

I understand that the school year is busy and your teen has a lot of homework. 

That means summer break is a good time for your teen to read! 

Many studies, including this article from The School Library Journal, have shown that students who don’t read consistently over the summer see their reading abilities stagnate. 

Even worse, this effect grows more prominent as they advance into high school.

Not every child naturally loves reading. Sometimes you might need to help them along, and summer is a great time to do so!

Here are 5 tips to help your child learn to love reading this summer:

  1. Have your teen set a summer reading goal and keep them accountable.
  2. Have your teen choose their own book to read, whether it’s graphic novels, cookbooks, or romance novels about vampires. . .reading is reading.
  3. Encourage your teen to read a book they enjoy for at least thirty minutes a day.
  4. Model reading for your teen. The more they see you reading, the more likely they are to follow your example.
  5. Have your teen sign up for the summer reading challenge at a local library. This could be a fun form of competition and a way to meet other teen readers.

It’s not too late! To help your teen pick out books to read this summer, we’ve compiled this list from several libraries and organized them by grade. 

High School Reading List

[mk_table style=”style2″ el_class=”mytable”]

9th Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina
and New Orleans
Don Brown
We Were Liars
E. Lockhart
Marcus Sedgwick
Between Shades of Gray
Ruta Sepetys
  Code Name Verity
Elizabeth Wein
10th Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
The Last Lecture
Randy Pausch
  Into Thin Air
Jon Krakauer
Six of Crows
Leigh Bardugo
  Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
11th I’ll Give You the Sun
Jandy Nelson
Debunk It!: How To Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation
John Grant
  Defy the Stars
Claudia Gray
The May Queen Murders
Sarah Jude
  In the Shadow of Blackbirds
Cat Winters
12th The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
Jeff Hobbs
Enter Title Here
Rahul Kanakia
  American Girls
Alison Umminger
Dirt Bikes, Drones, & Other Ways to Fly
Conrad Wesselhoeft
  Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History
Molly Schiot


Becoming a real reader can improve your teen’s vocabulary, make them a better writer, help them get into college, and enlarge their breadth of understanding of the world around them. 

What books would you add to these lists? Let me know in the comments below. 

Need a little more guidance?

For one-on-one support and other resources to help you or your child get into (or pay) for college click here.

If you’d like to learn more about helping your teen get into college, don’t miss these posts:

How to Save Time When Seeking Money for College
College Essay How-to: Who is someone you admire?
Get In and Get Money: 5 Tips for College-Bound Juniors


Will this activity help my teen get in college?

extra activities apply to college

When a parent asks me “Should my child do this activity?” I usually cringe. This question is bothersome because it’s a rather loaded question in that what parents really are asking is “If my child does this activity, will it help their college application?”

That’s the wrong question for 3 reasons:

  • There is only so much time that a teen has outside of school. Some of that outside time will be spent sleeping, spending time with family and friends, homework, ____. Given the limited amount of time left for doing the activities that a teen enjoys, then the focus of that extra time would best be spent on what the teen actually enjoys doing.


  • Because college is one of several pathways on an educational journey, determining the best colleges for any teen starts with why that teen wants to go to college and what their interests and needs are. The activities that a teen participates in therefore should not be determined based on what the college wants.


  • Colleges base their admissions decisions on their own institutional priorities. With 2,500+ colleges and universities across the US of all different shapes and sizes, it’s very hard to create an activities resume that will be right for every college.


So then the thing that a student should “do” to get in college is to be their authentic selves. The right activities then will be those that a teen is genuinely interested in doing and wants to do.

So when I get that first question, “Should my child do x?” I respond with “Is your child interested in doing x?”

If the response to my question is yes, then I applaud that child for their effort in participating in that activity, whatever it may be. Here is a range of activities that my students included on their resumes . . without concern for it being solely to get in college:


  • Camping
  • Cheer
  • Coding
  • Dancing
  • Fencing
  • Knitting
  • Model UN
  • Painting
  • Student government
  • Tutoring


And all of these students were admitted to colleges of all shapes and sizes where they are thriving. A common thread among all these activities is that students had depth, not just breadth. For example, the student who knitted did so through organized groups and summer experiences. The painter showcased his art at schools, attended extra classes and even presented a portfolio to colleges. . . although he’s not an art major.


If the response to my question is no, then my answer is “It’s not worth the time.” When a teen wastes time doing an activity just for the sake of doing it, it will be challenging for that student to find the colleges that are the best fit where they can thrive.


What activity does your teen enjoy? How does your teen determine their extracurricular activities?


How to avoid overpaying for college


If you are the parent of a college-bound teen and your family is likely to not qualify for financial aid, then there are three lessons from this most recent admissions cycle that you must know. Applying these lessons while your teen is in high school can help you avoid overpaying for college. I will give you a brief background on this current class of seniors so that you understand better how to apply these three important lessons.


What happened this year in college admissions

This recent class of seniors that I worked with started on their applications by August at the latest. The average number of applications was 8, which is similar to the national average.  A selection of colleges where my current class of students applied included:





High Point


Loyola of Chicago



Seattle Pacific


The Ohio State University

UC Berkeley

University of Michigan



My individual meetings with students occurred every 1-2 weeks, based on their application deadlines. Over a six- month period, we met about 20 times. Just as a “back of the envelope” estimate and based on my conversations with students, each senior spent about 100+ hours working on college applications!

Many of these hours occurred earlier in the fall as 80% of my seniors submitted one or two applications by an early deadline. I encourage students to consider applying Early Action (EA) to a couple colleges, which means that they will typically get an admissions decision by December. Given that there are plenty of colleges with January deadlines, if students learn a deferred or denied decision in December, then they still have time to submit additional applications. Furthermore, with EA applications, students have time to compare financial awards and weigh their college decision.

This year a few client families chose an Early Decision deadline. This option means that if the student is admitted then they must attend the college regardless of any financial aid. Therefore, if the parents do not qualify for financial aid, then the parents could be paying the full cost of attendance, i.e. $65,000+ per year for college.


What to expect next year in college admissions

If you want to pay considerably less for college and position your teen to qualify for merit scholarships then here are three key lessons:

Lesson 1: Campus visits matter

A campus visit signals to a college that your teen is interested in attending. Oftentimes, parents may not want to invest the time and money for a campus visit. However, investing $200-$500 to visit a college can have a return of $10,000+ in scholarships.  Colleges want to invest their scholarship dollars in admitting students that a) will enroll in that college and b) will contribute to the quality of life on campus.

Your teen may want to apply to a college because of their chances of being admitted. That’s all well and good but as a parent who doesn’t want to overpay for college, you also want a financial award to come with that admission letter. Investing in the campus visit can help your teen both get in and get money for college.

A campus visit was the most important factor in helping students write a compelling essay, which leads to the second lesson.


Lesson 2: Essays matter

Your teen will have essays to write for their college application and often for scholarships. A common question on many college applications is “Why this College?” Certainly, if your teen has not visited the campus, then it can be a challenge to respond to this prompt. Two of my students in this senior class were not able to do a campus visit due to athletic obligations. Their essays relied extensively on website research and these students spent considerable time working through the essays. Although the admissions decisions are not out yet for the current senior class, in the past when a student applied without a campus visit, she was admitted to the college. However, the college offered $0 in scholarships or aid. The signal from that college was “we’ll admit you but we’re not investing in you”.


In the essays that students write for college applications, the message they are conveying is “Why admit me”. It’s not always about how “good” of a writer your teen is, but how well your teen can communicate how they will contribute to campus life. That’s not always easy for a teen to communicate, but there are thousands of teens who do so every year. . . . which brings me to the third lesson.


Lesson 3: Competition is strong

Last year saw a 7% increase in the number of college freshman applications. Additionally, colleges are ramping up recruitment through social media and more ways to apply so, in turn, the volume of applications is expected to increase again. Current juniors should therefore expect that the competition for certain colleges will be stiff. When greater numbers of students are applying to the same colleges, it is more competitive.

For the remainder of high school, it’s important that your teen is positioning themselves to stand out in their applications. And as they are developing their list of colleges to consider these two questions:

Why am I special?

Why is X college a fit for me?


As a parent, you may want to answer these questions for your teen. But the answer must come from your teen. Admissions readers can easily detect any response that is not from your teen. Your teen’s genuine response to these questions can make all the difference in which colleges admit them. And . . . which colleges will offer scholarships so that you are not overpaying.


Question: How is your teen helping to pay for college? What are they doing in high school to position themselves for top dollar scholarships? Please comment below.


How to save time when seeking money for college

save time seeking scholarship money

During a recent FB Live show, I discussed “Grants and Scholarships 101 for Parents of college-bound teens”. Although teens are applying for the scholarships, oftentimes, parents are searching and later reminding their teen about available scholarship opportunities. Scholarship searches on the internet can take a lot of time. My aim in this show episode was to give parents some practical tips that will save time when seeking money for college, especially free money that you don’t have to give back. . . grants and scholarships.

The first of this two-part series on what parents must know about grants and scholarships will provide an overview to help you get started. In the second part of this series, I will discuss what parents must know about applying for scholarships.

Let’s get started by answering 2 common questions that I get from parents:

Is a grant the same as a scholarship?

We often use the term “grant” and “scholarship” as one and the same. Grants are usually need-based, which means that a family may only be eligible to receive the grant based on household income. To determine eligibility, the family may have to show proof of income or submit financial documentation.

“Scholarships” often refers to merit-based awards, which means that it doesn’t matter how much money the parents make. And the term “merit” can be defined very broadly. Some of the “merit” scholarships my students have received have been based on musical and artistic talents, geographic location, community service, even being a boy/girl.

Knowing these distinctions in terminology can help with your online searches.

Who gives grants/scholarships to my teen?

This is a great question because if you don’t know who gives out scholarships then you may overlook scholarships that your teen can get. The source can be different based on whether it’s a grant or scholarship:

Who awards grants

a. Federal – Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used to determine eligibility for federal grants, like the Pell Grant.

b. State – depending on your home state, the FAFSA may be used to see if your teen qualifies for any state grants.

c. Colleges – colleges also require FAFSA to determine if your teen qualifies for any grants they offer. If it’s a private college, parents may also have to complete the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile to determine eligibility.

Who awards scholarships

d. Anybody and everybody, like

  • credit unions
  • private organizations
  • employers
  • foundations
  • non-profit organizations

e. Colleges – the most lucrative scholarships my students have received came directly from the colleges. So when your teen is developing their college list, that will play a significant role in how big the scholarship offer may be. My suggestion here . . . don’t sleep on the importance of the college list!

What other tips or places should be included here? Please share in the comments below.

Part 2 of Grants and Scholarships 101 for Parents of college-bound teens: Applying