Saturday, April 20, 2013

Choosing the right college for gifted students: the fit factor

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 student? 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 research or 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 relevant for any college-bound student, they are particularly important 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 and disinterested, 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 feel 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?


  1. I do like your preference on fit, because the character of a school can often be overlooked when students choose where they will live and learn for another four or so years. Also, schools do tend to have wildly different cultures and student personalities, which can easily create environments that would either estrange or embrace different people. This tends to be overlooked when ambitious students plan their college years as a path to career success and neglect to consider their happiness during their college years.
    However, when you question how much choice students have in their choice of a college, wouldn't the admissions process not matter because the choice comes after acceptance (I assume you're still referring to April)? Also, cost can certainly be a big external constraint on choice, as can parental preferences for location or a specific school itself (which could predetermine weather and proximity to home). Nevertheless, wouldn't preferences for course of study, school size, and location, after accounting for parental influence, be further choices for a deciding student to make?
    In your last paragraph, I do feel like you make some pointless claims, though. While gifted students can struggle in an environment of disinterested peers, a bad teacher, or lack of friends or activities, so can anyone else. Also, if gifted or not gifted students could imagine what it would be like to live, eat, sleep, learn, and play at a particular school, the choice would probably be a lot easier. Most of them don't have any experience to base an expectation on for what it would be like to be at school, which is why they struggle with college decisions in the first place.

  2. Stan,

    I appreciate your points.

    Just to clarify, perhaps...

    I agree that course of study, location, cost, etc., along with the college's acceptance decision all clearly weigh in on making the choice. A lot of the decision process occurs during the initial application, and the right "fit" needs to be considered during that time.

    The final decision, when acceptances come in during late March, often requires last minute scrambling to come up with a quick choice, and sometimes the "fit factor" gets lost in the decision-making process.

    I agree that any student will thrive in an environment with involved peers, great teachers, etc. However, the stakes can be higher for gifted students because they sometimes bring a higher level of impatience, hunger for knowledge, and aversion to rote learning to the table. After years of feeling out of sync with peers in high school, many long for a college experience where they can be with like-minded peers, and if they feel they cannot connect, it may be particularly difficult for them.

    I also agree that most students have no idea what college will be like, so cannot imagine what to expect. However, envisioning ALL aspects of college life ahead of time helps as much as possible in the decision-making process. It can be particularly helpful if parents and teachers can offer some guidance in this effort.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  3. Great article ...Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting. I will be waiting for your next post.

  4. How early do parents of a gifted child really start planning their education path in order to select , apply , and be accepted to desired college ? With the addition of acedemkc scholarship? My son who is gluing to Mille School in 2015-2016 has been asking me this question and this was discussed during Parent night at The middle school. He is gifted with an IQ of 146 . Our plan was to take advantage of AP/Honors course and College Credit courses while getting him to graduate a year early .

    1. Irene, Difficult journey, but not impossible. Read as much as you can. Get on websites where you can gather information. See my other blog post,, for more thoughts. Good luck. Gail

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