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

Is University of Miami a good fit?

University of miami study abroad

Although the University of Miami may be best known for its competitive football team, the Hurricanes, it also has renowned programs in marine science, music, and business.


The residential colleges, strong academics, pre-professional offerings, access to internships, and research and study abroad opportunities serve a diverse body of student interests. The U’s Location Programs offer students a selection of 85 schools in more than 40 countries, providing a chance to travel and become immersed in another culture. All travel programs are taught by UM faculty and coordinated by staff so that the credits earned and financial awards follow the student.


Faculty connect with students on projects ranging from research to volunteer experiences. Faculty leaders in the residential colleges in which students reside organize lectures for students to attend, featuring guest speakers on topics such as genomics, the humanities, climate change, and more.



Students at the University of Miami are admitted directly to their major which may or not be the best option for an “undecided” prospect. UM, students have a distributed academic program where they take a minimum of three courses in arts and humanities, people and society, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Along with these general requirements, students have the flexibility to design their major coursework from more than 180 majors and programs across nine schools and colleges. The University of Miami also has an Honors Program which provides students additional resources and opportunities for faculty-mentored research.

Additional quick facts about the University of Miami

Freshman acceptance: 32%

Freshman retention: 92%

Freshmen out of state: 66%

4-year Graduation Rate: 70%

Most popular majors: nursing, biology, finance, psychology


Social scene

With a wealth of social opportunities, the biggest complaint that students have is that they don’t have enough time in four years to access all that the U has to offer. Students may choose to participate in local off-campus events, such as Art Basel or the Ultra Music Festival, or on-campus events like Sportsfest, where dorms compete against each other, or Gandhi Day, for community service. And of course, UM students have easy access to nearby beaches, road trips to Key West, Key Largo, or the Everglades. Greek organizations are not a not a major part of campus life, with only 16% of guys involved in fraternities and 19% of women in sororities.



Modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, UM’s housing system consists of five co-ed residential colleges. Each residential college has a senior faculty member that organizes seminars, concerts, dinners, social events, and lectures for students to participate. Although about 90% of freshmen live on-campus, only less than 30% of upperclassmen live on campus, with the rest commuting or living in off-campus apartments in the Miami area. UM’s campus security program protects students with campus shuttles and safety escorts.


Similar colleges to consider

University of Florida, Boston University, Florida State, University of Central Florida, NYU, Penn State, Northeastern, Florida International



Financial aid and Scholarships

The University of Miami offers need-based scholarships and grants, as well as athletic, international, and merit scholarships. 97% of the need is met. Although the tuition and fees are $48,000 a year, the average financial aid package is $32,000, with 35% of students receiving need-based scholarships or grants.


What do you think about the University of Miami? What about this college is a good fit? Please post your comments below.

Get In and Get Money: 5 Tips for College-Bound Juniors

college-bound high school juniors

This article was originally published on Jan 14, 2018, and has been updated.

Junior year of high school marks a turning point in the college admissions process.

It’s a year filled with milestones.

Researching colleges, developing teacher relationships, visiting campuses…the list goes on. College-bound juniors have a lot on their plate.

And did I mention testing?

Yes—ACT or SAT testing takes up a big chunk of junior year for college-bound teens!

The academic workload in eleventh grade is usually kicked up a notch or two as well.

Juniors are starting to ask themselves questions like, “What’s next?” and “am I on the right track?”

Friends and family also start to ask: “Where do you want to go to college?”

Especially for a junior who is not so sure what to say about their college prospects, junior year can be a bit of a pressure cooker.

I put together these five tips for college-bound juniors who want to get into the college of their choice and get the money to do so at the same time.

5 Tips for College-Bound High School Juniors

These tips will help college-bound juniors (and their parents) make the most of the year as they prepare for college.

1. Take challenging courses.

Colleges want to see that students challenged themselves during high school.

Every student is different, so a challenging course to one junior may be easy to another.

At the same time, juniors should maintain balance. This means taking a mix of courses that allow you to be challenged by course content as well as those that come more naturally.

2.  Research colleges.

When I say “research” colleges, I mean a thorough, consistent gathering of information on colleges that could be a good fit.

During your research, you want to consider how your options would be a good academic fit, social/cultural fit, and financial fit for you.

When it comes to a college’s financial fit, knowing what costs to expect will help you know the steps you’ll need to take to secure the funds to attend.

(By the way, you won’t want to miss this post outlining case studies of how students earned big scholarships!)

Juniors can gather information from college websites, books, directories, and other resources. The goal is to learn about each college at a deeper level.

william and mary for premed3. Get to know teachers.

It’s very likely that your college applications will include teacher recommendations.

The 3 things that qualify a teacher to write a strong recommendation are:

  • The student knows the teacher.
  • The teacher knows the student.
  • The teacher can write well about the student.

If they don’t already have a teacher who fits all of these qualifications, juniors can develop positive relationships with teachers to “qualify” them as recommenders.

In fact, this is an important task for junior year!

Juniors should plan to meet with one or two teachers on a regular basis throughout the year. They may also check-in with teachers after graded assignments, during free periods, or at the beginning of each term.

4. Visit college campuses.

Spring break of junior year is a great time to visit college campuses.

Many other juniors around the country are visiting campuses in the spring as well. Juniors should be prepared by researching and scheduling campus visits well in advance.

Before your campus visit, be sure to review the college’s website and have questions prepared.

(Note to parents: Let your student schedule the visits, not you!)

On the day of the visit, remember to take notes and have an open mind and good attitude. From the moment you arrive on campus, you’re being interviewed!

5. Take the ACT or SAT.

College-bound teens should take either the ACT or SAT in junior year.

If the first test is taken in the winter, it allows time for a retake before summer.

The goal is to avoid taking any standardized test in the fall of senior year.

In my experience working with college-bound students, senior year is already so busy with course workloads, college deadlines, and application essays. Having to take standardized tests too is a big nuisance.

Besides that, retake scores usually go down.

Junior year may come with a lot of stress and unanswered questions. With consistent steps taken throughout the year, it can be pivotal on the path to college admissions success!

And there’s plenty of help available for students and parents.

The fact you’re reading this means your motivation and focus to help your teen get to the front of the line has already moved them a leap ahead of the pack!

All you need now is to create a winning plan to help your teen Get In and Get Money.

If you are a busy parent who wants to help your college-bound junior reach their full potential, don’t miss my “Get In and Get Money” Workshop!

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 getting into college and getting money for college, don’t miss these articles either:

How to Save Time When Seeking Money for College
College Essay How-to: Who is someone you admire?
How to Avoid Overpaying for College

What other tips for 11th grade success would you suggest? Please let me know in the comments below!

Why the College of William & Mary is known as a “Public Ivy”

college of william and mary public ivy

William & Mary is the second oldest college in the country with a long history of liberal arts education and a growing research and science program. Undergrads at William & Mary have numerous research opportunities. A student majoring in government described William & Mary with these three words,  “Tradition. Community. Unique.” For those prospective students seeking this type of college environment, William & Mary has a lot to offer. Although the academic climate is rigorous, students say that cooperation among peers is the norm.

Here are a few quick facts about College of William and Mary:william and mary has active social life

Acceptance: 36%

Freshmen from out of state: 31% (keep in mind . . . it’s a public college, not private)

Most popular majors: biology, government, economics

Housing: Guaranteed housing through junior year

4-year Graduation rate: 84%

Academics: The College of William & Mary is dedicated to a philosophy of personalized education as shown through small class size and extensive student-faculty collaboration. “Classes are difficult and the workload is heavy, but lectures are small and generally engaging,” says one junior. Their joint degree program allows students to spend two years in Williamsburg and two in St Andrews in Scotland and end up with degrees from both institutions.  In addition, 70% of students participate in faculty-mentored research and William & Mary boasts some of the highest numbers for alums with PhDs in STEM.

william and mary for premedSocial:  There’s always something to do on campus, but the town itself can be somewhat “hit or miss”. Popular campus events include Homecoming Weekend, with its tailgate and concert. In their senior year, students can apply to live in a downtown dorm where they put on academic programming for the town. With over 400 clubs and organizations, a student would be hard-pressed not to find something to join!

Financial: College of William and Mary offers university grants and need-based financial aid, with 78% of need is fully met.

What do you think about this college? What else would you like to learn about it? Please post your comments below.


What University of Southern California has that no one else does

cademic and social st university of southern california

The University of Southern California is a renowned private research institution that fosters both a stimulating academic environment and a vibrant cultural community. Through the years, USC has come into its own as a center for the arts, technology, and communication. USC students enjoy solid academics and a lively social scene.


Part of those solid academics is the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. This undergraduate degree program seeks to promote original thought in self-driven students via networking with professors and fellow students, interactive learning, small class size, and mentorship, with the the hopes of creating breakthrough products, systems, and technologies. By offering lectures, presentations, discussions, tutorials, and trips throughout the year, the Iovine-Young program fosters a culture of constant learning and empowers these exceptional cohorts to change the world.



A core curriculum at USC requires students to take nine courses: six general education, two intensive writing, and one diversity. The school offers a “thematic option” to those students with high GPAs and test scores which allows them to be in smaller classes with some of the university’s best teachers and writing instructors. USC also strongly encourages pursuit of double majors, and offers a wide variety of choices within their seventeen professional schools.


USC’s global connections allows for unique study abroad experiences. The Global Leadership program invites academically talented first-year students to travel to China after a year-long seminar and meet executives from regional and international companies. Another program, Learning About International Commerce, features a two-unit course with eight day trips abroad to meet with business leaders in Budapest, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Santiago, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei and Tokyo.


Additional quick facts about the University of Southern California

Acceptance: 17%

Freshman retention: 96%

Freshmen from out of state: 44%

4-year Graduation rate: 77%

Most popular majors:  cinema arts, business, engineering, communication


Social scene

USC has a diverse student body with 115+ countries represented on campus, which offers a wealth of cultural value and global connections.


Since University of Southern California has one of the top football teams, a lot of student life is centered around sports. Trojan athletics, which competes in the Pac-12 Conference, has won more than 115 team national championships in men and women’s sports ranging from baseball to water polo.



30% of USC’s student population lives on campus, with freshman guaranteed a spot in luxurious dorms, equipped with swimming pools and tennis courts. Since there isn’t enough space in the dorms, the other 70% live in nearby apartments or fraternity and sorority houses.


Similar colleges to consider

UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Stanford, NYU, Boston University


Financial aid and Scholarships

Although tuition and fees are about $72,000, the average financial aid package is $51,000. 56% of students get need-based financial aid, 49% get need-based grants, and 24% receive merit scholarships. 80% of students have their need fully met.


What do you think about University of Southern California? What about this college is a good fit? Please post your comments below.

Last-minute Campus Visit Tips for College-bound Seniors

campus visits in senior year

Every fall, there are are college-bound seniors who decide to add a college (or 2!) to their list that they haven’t visited. In some cases, maybe a senior hasn’t been able to visit any colleges at all. There are still last-minute opportunities to visit a campus prior to the early November deadlines.

I urge seniors to visit those campuses where they have a strong interest. The campus visit can help with determining whether to keep that college on the list and writing the “Why this college?” essay. Also, many high schools encourage campus visits by permitting seniors to visit colleges without an absence penalty.

3 top tips for Senior campus visits

For those college-bound seniors who are visiting in the fall, here are 3 tips to get the most from a last-minute visit:

Blue lights are everywhere!
Blue lights are everywhere!
  • Sleep overnight –This is a great way to experience dorm life, meet students, and getting sense for the campus vibe. You’ll know right away if you “fit in” or not.
  • Interview – The admissions office may offer interviews. This will be a time that you can shine beyond your application. Be careful though . . . if you think that the interview with hurt your application, rather than help, then don’t interview.
  • Visit the campus at night – Almost every campus has a blue-light system. However, walking around the campus at night or the surrounding neighborhood will help you determine if you still feel safe in that environment. This is especially important if you’re concerned about safety and the college doesn’t offer an overnight opportunity.

Special visit programs for College-bound Seniors

So as stressful as the application season may be, the campus visit is still an important component to include on your schedule. Some of the campuses that offer overnight programs or special senior weekends are

This is a short list of colleges but there many others. Check out the admissions page of the college that interests you to learn about their special programs for high school seniors.

Where are you visiting?

Vanderbilt beyond beautiful campus: A great fit for engineering, research, community, study abroad and foodies

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University, the smallest and only private college in SEC conference, offers 68 undergraduate majors across four schools and colleges: the College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering, Peabody School of Education and Human Development, and Blair School of Music. Students apply to a school. Each school is special in its own way and worth highlighting further. Students in the College of Arts and Science can design their own major. There are 8 tracks in the School of Engineering and students choose 3 of those tracks in which to take courses during their freshman year. The Organization Development major in the Peabody School requires an off-campus internship either in 2nd semester junior year or first semester of senior year. Since the Blair School only has an undergraduate program and is NOT a conservatory, students earn their degree through another school.

Prospective students usually fall in love with the Vanderbilt campus. Its park-like campus is located in the heart of Midtown, surrounded by restaurants, shops, and cultural destinations. There are, in fact, over 80 restaurants within walking distance of the campus. (Foodies beware!) On the main campus, art and sculptures dot the landscape and architectural styles range from Gothic to modern glass and brick.

Vanderbilt University

Don’t let the beautiful campus fool you, though. . . .Vanderbilt is still one of the most selective colleges in the US. Check out their acceptance rate and these additional quick facts about Vanderbilt:

Acceptance: 8.8%

Freshmen from out of state: 89%

Most popular majors: social sciences, engineering, interdisciplinary studies (No wonder with the flexibility students have to double-major across schools.)

Housing: 86% of undergraduates live in the dorms. All freshman live together which can be a plus for meeting new friends and building a tighter class community.

4-year Graduation rate: 84%

Academics: Vanderbilt’s study abroad program attracts 35 percent of students and offers the chance to spend a summer, a semester, or a year on one of six continents through 130 programs. There’s even a May-mester option to study abroad, so no excuse for students not to take advantage of this amazing opportunity. An interdisciplinary approach to learning is embraced and undergrads are encouraged to take classes across all four schools. From their first year, undergraduates can get involved with cutting-edge research with world-renowned faculty and participate in internships. Keep in mind, though, Vanderbilt does not offer a “co-op” program.

Social: Vanderbilt students have remarked that “Nashville is so much fun,” and “The list of excellent restaurants, bars, shopping, and live music venues is endless.” In addition to the 500+ student clubs, over half of undergraduate women participate in sororities and 30% of the guys. Although many Greek parties are open to the entire campus, the strong participation in Greek life may suggest that Vanderbilt is not be the best fit if a teen is not interested in Greek life.

Vanderbilt has a long tradition of community service, starting an “alternative spring break” as far back as the 70s. Today, an impressive 75% of students participate in community service.

Financial: Vanderbilt offers university grants and need-based financial aid, with 100% of need fully met.  Their financial packages do not include loans (hooray!). Thus, Vanderbilt’s offers include only gift monies and a small amount of expected student employment.

What do you think of Vanderbilt? What about this college is a good fit? Please post your comments below.

Union College has interdisciplinary studies, engineering and unique study abroad options

union campus engineering

Union College is known for its interdisciplinary studies and study abroad programs. To emphasize creativity in its engineering programs, Union supports STEAM (with arts). During my visit there, I was most impressed with the high rate of graduation for women in the sciences and engineering. Union has a rather unique program in Siberian Russia which combines Russian studies and environmental studies. Building on a strong sense of community, all faculty, staff, and students are assigned to a “house” which is a space for them with seminar room, programming and community. (Upperclassmen can live in the house.)

Here are a few quick facts about Union College:
Union College

Acceptance: 38%

Freshmen from out of state: 75%

Most popular majors: economics, biology, psychology

Housing: Guaranteed housing freshman year

4-year Graduation rate: 80%

Academics:  “Union has outstanding academics.” says a freshman. Union operates on a trimester system, which means thrice-a-year exams and a late start to summer jobs—but also the opportunity to concentrate on just three courses a term. The common curriculum has modern language requirements and 5 writing across curriculum courses within the 7 distribution areas. Engineering majors must declare by the end of freshman year – bio-, mechanical, electrical, or computer. Union also provides wonderful opportunities for students to study abroad. One program allows students to study for a term in Siberia, Russia, delving into Russian and environmental studies. The professors here at Union are simply wonderful.” says another student. Students can expect to see full professors at the lecterns rather than TAs. 

Social:  “The majority of social life is on campus,” says a student. Campus events also include comedians, concerts, and speakers. What Schenectady lacks can be found in Saratoga Springs, which boasts restaurants, jazz clubs, horse racing, and Skidmore College, or in the nearby Adirondacks and Catskills. Popular road trips include Boston, Montreal, New York, and the ski slopes of nearby Vermont. Union’s athletic teams compete in Division III, aside from men’s and women’s ice hockey, both of which are Division I. 

Financial: Although the tuition and fees are approximately $62,274, Union College offers grants and need-based financial aid, with the average need-based scholarship of $32,000. 100% of need is fully met, although the Union is need-aware. Union does not combine merit and need-based aid.

What do you think about this college? What else would you like to learn about it? Please post your comments below.

Occidental College has special programs and picturesque campus

Occidental College

Minutes outside of downtown Los Angeles, Occidental College is tucked away in a beautiful campus full of trees and flowers. Even more colorful than Oxy’s environment though is its school culture: energetic, socially conscious, supportive, and motivated.

Here are a few quick facts about Occidental:

Acceptance: 42%

Freshmen out of state: 43%

Most popular majors: Diplomacy and World Affairs, Economics, Politics, Science, Urban and Environmental Policy, Theater, Art History and Visual Arts

Housing: Required for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors

4-year Graduation rate: 78%

Occidental College

Academics: Classes stay small at Occidental, and students and professors build strong relationships quickly. Because so many students are motivated in diverse fields, Oxy provides its students with a number of special programs and encourages learning experiences outside of the classroom. For students interested in international relations, Oxy has a unique program with the United Nations, unlike any other offered.

Social: Having L.A. in your backyard is nice, and free vans can get you downtown or on the beach in ten minutes. But Oxy’s campus usually brings a lot of its own excitement on the weekends too. Spirited games, concerts, dances, parties, and Greek functions are all available for students.

Financial: Oxy offers need-based financial aid, grants, and merit scholarships. 100% of the need is met. Although the tuition and fees are $63,901, the average financial aid package is $42,541. 81% of students receive grants and 11% receive merit scholarships.

Motto: “Occident Proximus Orienti” – The West is nearest to the East

What do you think about this college? What else would you like to learn about it? Please post your comments below.


10 Colleges with Unique Learning Opportunities during January

Johns Hopkins Homewood

In my recent talk with students in Kigali, Rwanda, they had a lot of questions about the unique features of American colleges and universities. Students were familiar with the brand-name colleges and a few colleges that had visited their school. Beyond that, they were surprised by the variety of college options, locales, and even distinctions among the Ivy League universities. One of the students with an interest in engineering asked about Johns Hopkins University.

Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins Homewood campus has a wealth of learning opportunities both on and off-campus.

A cool feature about Johns Hopkins is that it offers a January (“intersession”) term. The January term allows students to travel abroad or delve into an interesting topic that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to take otherwise, because it’s outside their course of study, nontraditional or both. For example, several of the courses offered recently at Johns Hopkins during its January term included Shiatsu sitting, Leading for Social Change, Iranian Intellectual History, travel study in Cuba, and ballroom dance.

Here are several other colleges that offer a January term:

This is a short list to whet your interest. There are numerous other campuses that offer a January term. Which additional colleges/universities did you find?