How comfortable are you around water? Are you a strong swimmer or do you struggle to keep your head above water? Are you comfortable venturing into the deeper water or do you prefer to wade into shallow water as long as the bottom is visible and the footing is certain? Most people expose themselves to water and swimming situations according to their respective levels of skill and comfort—no more, no less.
The same might be true as you assess your comfort level with different academic environments in search of a good college “fit.”
Just as you might study a body of water to figure out its temperature, depth and current (relative to your levels of tolerance) before venturing in, you need to investigate the rigor, pace and depth of an academic environment—and your ability to keep your “head above water” if admitted—before deciding to apply.
When assessing academic rigor as an indication of “fit,” you are likely to find that you have the capacity to “get the job done” academically in a range of college environments. In other words, to follow the metaphor, you are not likely to have difficulty with the water itself. You will fit best, however, in environments where your ability and preparation enable you to rise to new levels of challenge.
Your objective, then, should be to find academic environments where your levels of ability and preparation will enable you to achieve well as you stretch yourself intellectually. These places represent appropriate “bodies of water” for you academically. The best sources of insight regarding your preparedness to meet the academic rigor of various colleges and universities are your high school teachers. Their familiarity with your capabilities can be invaluable in identifying the colleges where you will be well served academically.
Assuming you are able to identify appropriate environments academically, you now need to assess the competitiveness of your credentials for admission to those colleges. How does your record stack up with those of other candidates, most (about 90%) of whom are just like you in that they can do the work, too?
A helpful guide in this regard is to compare your credentials with those of students who are already enrolled at the college you are considering. You can do this by looking at the Admission Profile for that school’s most recent entering class. If your scores and GPA fall within the top quartile of those reported on the school’s profile, it’s a safe bet you will be a competitive candidate for admission to that school. While not a guarantee of admission, it is reassurance that you are looking in the right place. Your chances diminish incrementally, though, as your credentials fall below the top quartile.
You need to be honest in assessing this part of the picture especially if you are considering schools that can be highly selective.
A lot of students get in over their heads competitively when they fail to consider the odds of gaining admission.
While you might feel you are a viable candidate at schools that can be very choosy, the reality is you need to be in the top 25% of an applicant pool to have a fighting chance of being admitted. By the way, you don’t increase your chances of getting into at least one such school by applying to a dozen of them!
Be smart, then, about choosing where to apply. Put yourself on competitive playing fields that are most appropriate given your skills and preparation. Whether you compete in the pool or on the stage or in the classroom, you have the best chance of finding success when your skills prove your capacity to do the work and are competitive with those around you. Put yourself into competition where you fit best and enjoy the success that is bound to come your way both as a candidate for admission and as a subsequently enrolled student.
-Peter Van Buskirk