The new obsession for college applications

Students tour the UC Davis campus during freshman orientation.
Students tour the UC Davis campus during freshman orientation. Sacramento Bee file

Maybe there’s no such thing as a college application season without an overwrought frenzy about one aspect of the process or another. This year, the hot-button word seems to be “fit.”

Have I found the right college for me? Can I major in dog psychology there, because that’s what I plan to do as my life’s work? Is there too much partying or too little? Is the location too urban to feel like a real campus, or so rural that there’s no decent Thai food?

To some extent, “fit” has replaced earlier obsessions about getting into the most prestigious universities. “Fit” implies no snobbery and brings no disappointment about not getting into a top-choice school.

Certainly, valuing fit beats single-minded devotion to college rankings. But we’re barely emerging from the days of thinking that good colleges are the ones with the lowest possible acceptance rate, or that a slightly fancier name is worth a huge increase in future debt, and already we’re in the midst of a fit fetish.

I have a lot of opportunity to see how students’ choices affect their experiences – from my kids and their pals, from the college where I teach and from my years as a journalist covering higher education. In truth, most students seem pretty content with their schools.

But the ones who seem happiest, and who are getting the most out of it, aren’t those who determined in advance what their perfect-fit schools were. Rather, they’re the students who have grown to fit their schools.

One is an introverted student who attended a college where the culture values community and social interaction. He’s become more social, more comfortable with teamwork and much more joyful. Another is attending a British university where at first she was shocked by the lack of guidance and feedback from professors, which is typical of U.K. schools. She had a rocky first semester before she learned how to become self-directed and not wait for others to tell her what to do. She quickly grew more mature and self-confident, and has skills that already are helping her with internships and job opportunities.

There was the boy whose parents couldn’t afford more than community college. There, he discovered a love of culinary arts, a program that wouldn’t have been offered at any of the four-year schools he’d yearned to attend. Another student attends a school in eastern Washington where she at first bemoaned the lack of nightlife and ethnic eateries, but became a fan of outdoor adventure and learned to appreciate aspects of society she’d never encountered before.

Instead of asking is this college “me,” the better question might be: What better “me” might I become at this place?

The answers aren’t found on college websites or on college tours. Instead, read student blogs. Visit campuses if you can, but skip the tour in favor of sitting with students in the cafeteria and the student center. If you can ask only one question, make it: How has this place changed you in ways you didn’t expect?

Ask the college to attend some classes that aren’t what you’d normally plan to take, but ones that might blow your mind a little. Instead of considering how comfortable you’ll be at a school, ask yourself in what glorious ways you might feel a little discomfited.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at