April is a mixed bag, full of contradictions. It brings gorgeous flowers…along with seasonal allergies. It also marks the end of the long decision-making process for many high school seniors deliberating over choosing the “right” college. A time of excitement and joy for some, disappointment and sober reflection for others, and chaos and confusion for many more, April can wreak havoc on students and families who must wrestle with this critical decision.
Identifying the “right” college for a gifted, high ability student carries an additional burden. Just when advocating for appropriate educational services might seem to be over, the weighty impact of choosing the best college looms large. What is best for a gifted child? Is it a high-reach, tippy-top ivy league or liberal arts school? A small, non-traditional college where the student receives a lot of individual attention? A prestigious technology school? A large university with an honors college? Or is a moderately competitive school where the student feels less academic pressure and can stand out as a leader the best option? How much actual choice do students really even have, given the highly competitive admissions process, the sobering reality of cost (or financial aid availability), and the mitigating variables that impact every student's decision, such as location, weather, school size, proximity to home, and course of study?
The right fit may be the most important criteria for success. But what exactly is fit? And how does a gifted student determine what fit is right for him or her? Fit is that intangible, hard to describe feeling a person experiences when he or she feels comfortable, challenged and supported. It occurs in situations where there is sufficient safety, encouragement, respect, and social support, along with creative and intellectual challenge. Most gifted students have weathered enough academic and social experiences in high school to possess some sense of what they find intellectually stimulating or boring. They know where they feel comfortable socially and what types of individuals appeal to them.
The fit factors that gifted students need to consider along with other variables when selecting a college include the following:
1. How important is my peer group to me? Is it critical for me to be with like-minded peers who are similar intellectually, or am I comfortable with a variety of interests, outlooks and abilities? Did I blend in easily with peers of all abilities in high school, or did I primarily gravitate toward the other gifted students? Was I uncomfortable with students who were different and sometimes feel like an outsider? Or did I enjoy being different, and appreciate standing out as a leader or being recognized for my strengths?
2. Is a challenging intellectual environment critical? Would I feel bored if I had to sit through classes that were not stimulating? On the other hand, if I was able to “slide by” academically in high school, am I up to the challenge of a demanding workload? Is it time to pick up the pace and actually challenge myself for the first time? If I was a perfectionist in high school, do I need to consider how I will feel in an environment where I do not always succeed at everything? Would competition with equally talented peers create too much stress?
3. Does the school offer creative, challenging outlets for involvement beyond classroom assignments? Are the faculty readily accessible for consultation and willing to encourage creative involvement? Will I have opportunities for the extra-curricular activities I enjoy, can I pursue topics of interest in depth, and will I have the freedom to design a program that allows me to grow intellectually and creatively?
4. Where do I think I will fit in the best? Where do I see myself feeling the most comfortable, respected, well-liked, supported, challenged, and inspired? Where can I have fun in a way that allows me to pursue my interests and be true to myself? Where can college be a catalyst toward personal and professional growth, rather than a distraction from accomplishing my goals? Identifying a list of personal needs regarding fit and prioritizing them can be invaluable.
While the above questions are suitable for any college-bound student, they are particularly relevant for gifted teens, since the stakes are so high. Gifted individuals can become impatient with slow-paced, rote learning and will lose interest in a program that is not appropriately challenging. If a gifted student is surrounded by peers who are bored, disinterested, and not engaged in class, or if the teaching is substandard, the student may lose respect and interest, and also disengage. If the student feels ostracized by peers, cannot find an accepting group of friends, or is unable to identify any activities of interest, he or she will be unfulfilled. What is most important is to envision how it would be to live, eat, sleep, learn and play at a particular school, and how this will facilitate your educational, personal and professional growth. What will be the right fit for you?