Here’s how to find the right college experience for you

For college-bound high school students, the choice can be overwhelming.

college campus
© jonbilous /

In high school, when JonDavid Nichols stepped onto the William & Mary campus in Williamsburg, he knew it was the place for him.

“It was my top selection because whenever I walked onto campus, I immediately had ‘the feeling’ that people talk about when making a college decision,” says Nichols. “The campus was stunning, the student body was welcoming and passionate, and the programs were extensive and exciting.”

But things didn’t go as planned.

Nichols had applied early decision to William & Mary as a high school student and was rejected, a result he says “devastated” him.

He ended up going to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, in the fall of 2016, but found the campus climate and learning mindset did not meet his needs.

“The student body was much less open to outside perspectives than I was anticipating,” he says, and thus he made the decision to transfer, reapplying—and this time being admitted—to his first-choice school.

He’s now in his senior year at William & Mary, majoring in government and marketing.
For a student, transferring can feel overwhelming, but, it’s not uncommon at all. It turns out, a large portion of those students heading off to college with their new school’s bumper sticker proudly displayed on their car, find that the school wasn’t exactly the right fit.

A 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that 37.2% of college students changed schools at least once within six years, and of these, 45% changed their institution more than once.

It’s with those types of statistics in mind that college counselors and other school officials work with students to help them navigate the college application process.

teacher and two students at table
Susan Chiarolanzio, director of college counseling at Flint Hill School in Oakton, advises college-bound students. (Photo by Robert Merhaut)

Figuring out what you want

Susan Chiarolanzio, director of college counseling at Flint Hill School in Oakton is intimately familiar with the college application process both professionally and personally. She has worked in Flint Hill’s college counseling office for 21 years and in September 2019, her second daughter began her freshman year at Syracuse University.

“I’ve seen the process evolve over time,” says Chiarolanzio. “Everybody from the chairman of the board down really wants kids to find the best schools for them. We help them focus on where they can be successful—how they learn, what the best setting is for them. We assess what works for them and encourage them to expand on that.”

This post originally appeared in our December 2019 issue. For more education-centered content, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Heather Deardorff, director of college counseling at The Potomac School  in McLean, advises students to consider their non-negotiables, the things they absolutely must have in a college. For some, it might be an urban setting. For others, a Greek system, or lack thereof. Some might want a small student-to-teacher ratio, while another might require a journalism program or an intramural badminton team.

“You have to get to know a student before you can sit down, ask their preferences and reel off a list,” she says.

Braden Peterson, director of student services at Langley High School in McLean, emphasizes that not only is it vital for the counselors to get to know the students, but the students to know themselves. “If you want to find the best fit you have to figure out who you are, and our students are trying to bypass that work,” he says. “They want to try to fit into what the college wants from them, rather than find the school that best fits them. It doesn’t start with finding the college, it starts with understanding who you are. Students aren’t taking time to be aware of what impacts them and what they really like, they’re just trying to keep up with their neighbors.”

Deardorff and her two colleagues have the students fill out detailed preferences worksheets with questions that range from academics to social life to class size. They are focused, she says, on helping students find the school that is right for them, not necessarily the “top” school.

“We really try to not rely so much on college rankings, and casting a wide net,” Deardorff says.

two students with teacher at computer
Heather Deardorff, director of college counseling at The Potomac School in McLean, helps students find the right fit for college. (Photo by Robert Merhaut)

A two-way street

Concurrently, having the best grades will not guarantee a student’s admission into a top school. Admissions counselors at several area schools, including George Mason University and William & Mary, describe the process as “holistic,” taking into account factors such as course rigor, test scores, letters of recommendation, essay and extracurriculars, along with transcripts.

“All of those things are very important to be able to glean if the student is the right fit,” says Melissa Bevacqua, director of undergraduate admissions at GMU. “We make some assumptions, of course, but based on all that is how we determine if the student is going to be a good match at Mason.”

“No decision is based on a singular element. We use all of the information available to us to make what, in many cases, are difficult decisions,” says Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at William & Mary. “We’re fortunate enough to have a strong enough applicant pool where it isn’t a matter of choosing between a student with an outstanding academic record or a student who can contribute from a student community and extracurricular perspective. Rather, we hope to find students who have demonstrated previous success and potential to thrive both as a student and as an engaged member of the community.”

While the bulk of the college search and application process takes place between junior and senior years, some high schools encourage students to be conscientious of the college process much earlier.

“The college admissions process really starts freshman year,” says Miriam Buono, associate head of school for operations at Oakcrest School in Vienna. “It’s good for them to get a good sense of the trajectory. We sit down with the parents and the girls to get them to think about where they see themselves, what their interests are.”

The extended process, says Buono, helps students know themselves better so they can make a more informed choice that is best tailored to their needs.

“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure for young people to succeed,” she says. “There’s a trend of anxiety. We try to tell our students to look at themselves honestly to learn who they are. By the time they’re getting to the formal college admissions process they have a sense of who they are, the virtues they’re trying to work on, so approaching college is more of an informed choice rather than throwing things at a dartboard.”

Elysse Catino, college and career counselor at Washington-Liberty High School in Arlington, encourages families to think not only about the school environment that will best serve the student, but where the student can also make a contribution.

“A student can do really well and thrive on many campuses,” she says, “but [it’s best] if they’re able to do research and find a school that is not only going to help them grow, but where the student can really help the school community.”

Students and families at Trinity School at Meadow View in Falls Church are also introduced to the college guidance process beginning in the ninth grade, says director of college guidance Randy Lovdahl.

The curriculum gives teachers and administrators the opportunity to be well-acquainted with students and families.

“We know the students quite well by the time they are applying to college because we’ve taught them, in most cases, for six years,” says Lovdahl. “We generally have a good feel for their strengths.”

girl at desk in MD sweatshirt
Maher Kanwal. (Photo by Christin Boggs Peyper)

Get to know the campus

Maher Kanwal, a Potomac native who now lives in Arlington, had a similar experience. She applied to the University of Maryland at College Park as a high school senior, but wasn’t accepted, so she decided to attend Penn State. While Kanwal liked the school spirit of Penn State, the cost was daunting and she found Pennsylvania to be too far from home. She was accepted to Maryland upon reapplication and made the change.

Kanwal advises applicants, especially those applying to be first-year students, to visit campuses and have conversations with students beyond those who work in the admissions office.

“Talk to people who are students there,” she says. “Stop someone who isn’t a tour guide and talk to someone who isn’t trying to persuade you to go.”

Taking the time to visit campuses whenever possible is something both Deardorff and Chiarolanzio encourage families to do. Deardorff even takes it a step further: Have fun with the visits.

“I wish more families could enjoy the process,” she says. “Especially for the families of rising seniors, spending time traveling to colleges, on the campus visits and in the debriefing afterward is one of the last times they may have real, quality time with each other. I wish they could slow down and enjoy the experience, maybe visiting fun local places near the colleges or, simply, talking in the car or over lunch.”

Those fun, local places near the college can be essential. After all, Chiarolanzio points out: The student will be living in that town or city for four years. They need to be able to make a life there.

Part of that life often includes on-campus residences. Buono says she encourages her students—who are coming from a single-sex environment—to consider their housing-related needs. For example, do they require a school with an all-female dormitory?

susan chiarolanzio at flint hill
Susan Chiarolanzio, director of college counseling, at Flint Hill. (Photo by Robert Merhaut)

Look for lifelines

She also urges them to look for what she calls lifelines.

“Lifelines can be family nearby, enrichment centers, a church or temple they would affiliate with,” she says. “A lifeline can be a sibling at the school. She noted that her own children went to the same college and would attend church together on Sunday. A lifeline can also be an alum of one’s high school alma mater. “We encourage [our students] to look for Oakcrest alumni,” Buono continues. “They get there, they have their fellow Oakies who can help them make friends.”

When Kanwal transferred to College Park from Penn State in her sophomore year, she had two lifelines of sorts. The first was her roommates—she shared an apartment with three other transfer students and appreciated that sense of common ground. Kanwal had also pledged a sorority at Penn State and was able to join the same sisterhood at Maryland. While she only remained a member for a year, she says she was able to make several friends.

However, Kanwal encourages new students, and especially transfer students, to not rely only on the comfort of lifelines.

“The hardest part was putting myself out there,” she says. “I wanted to immerse myself fully. I went up to people when I felt uncomfortable, I put myself out there. In the end, it pays off, you make a connection with someone you went out of your way to become friendly with.”

Fairfax native Emma Powers echoed Kanwal’s sentiment. Powers transferred from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington to the University of Virginia where her boyfriend at the time was attending.

“Having my boyfriend there was great because I had a group of friends to jump into, but I didn’t want to rely on that,” Powers says. “If you want to feel at home somewhere you have to feel like you created it yourself.”

Indeed, while some students might thrive better with a lifeline—a soft place to fall—others need to fly without a net, so to speak.

Deardorff recalls one student applied to almost all liberal arts colleges, mostly in New England rural areas, but ended up choosing Columbia University in New York City “because it scared her a lot,” says Deardorff. “She had never lived in a city, she knew it would be chaotic and messy. She hadn’t identified those things as what she wanted, but she ended up realizing that would be more of a growth experience.”

But even a safe choice—or a dream school—doesn’t always work out as planned, and often not for negative reasons.

Powers and Kanwal are both proof that the decision to transfer is not always about having a bad experience or making the “wrong” choice. Plenty of factors can come into play.

Powers made the decision to leave UNC Wilmington, where she’d been very happy, and move to UVA, where she felt like there might be more opportunity.

“It wasn’t until college that I really started loving academics and learning,” says Powers, who graduated from UVA in 2013. “I was doing creative writing and decided to double major in psychology. Then I learned about cognitive science at UVA, and that was a perfect fit for me. The name recognition value was a factor. It was nice to have the prestige of a public Ivy.”

Encouraged by a psychology professor who noted in a lecture that people are more likely to regret the decisions they don’t make than the ones they do, Powers decided to take the leap. “I thought I was going to stay [in Wilmington] until the day I accepted [UVA’s offer].”

woman with glasses and plaid shirt
Hope Breen. (Photo by Robert Merhaut)

Exploring alternate options

For some students, beginning at one school and finishing at another as a planned course of action makes sense.

In some instances, an immediate transition from high school to college might not be the way to go. For other students, a gap year to work or travel might be preferable. Others might fare best attending another school, such as Northern Virginia Community College, which might be less challenging, less costly or closer to home, before transferring to another college or university via a guaranteed admission programs.

William & Mary has a guaranteed admissions agreement with the Virginia Community Colleges system for students who fulfill certain requirements, including completion of a transfer-oriented associate degree and a minimum GPA of 3.6 prior to submitting the application. UVA offers a similar agreement for students who complete their associate’s degree in good standing at any of the VCCS schools, as does GMU.

Hope Breen transferred to GMU in January 2018 after earning her associate’s degree in hospitality management from Monroe Community College in her hometown of Rochester, New York, in 2016. Going back to school was a challenge, she says, albeit a worthwhile one. While her major-specific credits transferred, her liberal arts ones did not. The social mindset also struck her as different.

“Going to a community college, you know that your time with your friends is on a deadline,” she says. “Every semester I was losing friends to new colleges and gaining new friends who were deciding to go back to school. There was a constant ebb and flow. It seems like people [at four-year colleges] make their friends freshman year and don’t open or close their circles. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a totally different mindset. It doesn’t seem that people at a four-year university see the value in meeting people that they won’t be friends with for very long. I feel like I am finally settling into my friend group, but I graduate in December. I love Mason but it was frustrating taking so long to find my own personal groove.”

The right fit

Ultimately, choosing a college is going to be about finding that personal groove—socially, academically, extracurricularly—and each student is going to have different needs when it comes to finding the place they fit best.

“My hope is always that the student is the one that is leading the charge,” says Deardorff. “My hope for these young people going through this rite of passage is that they know themselves pretty well and they can be introspective about who they are and what they need, and that they don’t have to have it all figured out.”

Keeping a healthy perspective is also important for students when going through this fraught time. Nichols, now at William & Mary, says even though he had to transfer to find his right fit, he’d still advise other students: Don’t worry so much.

“Don’t be afraid of making the wrong choice,” he says. “It is easy to get caught up in the idea that your college decision is the biggest decision of your young adult life and that if you choose the wrong one, you’ve messed everything up. That’s not true. The reality is that there are probably several, if not dozens, of schools across the country where you could be happy and content. If you make the wrong choice, and you aren’t as happy as you thought you’d be, it’s not the end of the world.”

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