“Be True to Your Academic ‘Fingerprint'”

By Peter Van Buskirk

Myth: All colleges and universities are alike.

Reality: This country boasts a broad array of more than 3,000 colleges and universities dedicated to providing post-secondary educational opportunities. Although common in mission, their personalities, curricula and institutional cultures vary as greatly as 3,000 sets of fingerprints!

Think about what this means for you. While your educational needs can be met at many places, it would be a mistake to assume they will be met in the same manner—or, more importantly, in a manner that is well suited to your learning style. This is perhaps the most underestimated element of the college selection process. Believe it or not, comfort and compatibility can make a big difference in your eventual success as a student.

Finding a good college fit, then, begins with identifying places that provide the academic program you need and a style of instruction that is most comfortable for you. Just as students possess unique learning styles—they each process information differently—colleges offer different styles of instruction. Let’s suppose, for example, you want to study Biology. Some colleges will teach Biology in seminars that include 25-30 students. Some teach it in lecture halls of five hundred! Yet others will attach labs to the instruction or offer research opportunities.

In each case, the material is the basically same—Bio is Bio—but the experience is different. The important questions are, “How would you function in these different environments? What sort of interaction do you want to have with the information that is being presented?”

In order to find the learning environments that make the most sense for you, take stock of your learning style. How do you like to be engaged with learning? Who or what inspires you? Under what circumstances are you most likely to produce your best work? The more you know about how you like to learn, the easier it will be to make critical distinctions among the learning environments of different colleges.

Consider the following questions as you try to get your arms around your learning style. Be particularly attentive to the “why” part of each question.

  • Who is your favorite teacher—and why?
  • What is your favorite class right now—and why?
  • In which type of classroom setting (i.e. large group lectures, seminars, etc.) are you most comfortable—and why?
  • With what kinds of people and personalities do you enjoy exchanging ideas—and why?
  • If you had to choose between a test, a paper and a project to receive a grade for the entire year, what would you choose—and why?

As you reflect on your answers—especially the “whys”—you come to better understand the characteristics of a learning environment that would be the most appropriate for you in college. The next step is to look for colleges that mirror these characteristics. They will be the best fits for you.

If, for example, your approach to learning is to take good notes, read diligently and prepare carefully—all in the relative anonymity of the large lecture hall, then you are more likely to function comfortably in a larger, more expansive instructional setting. On the other hand, if you like the engagement of a small classroom where you can ask questions—where you can challenge and be challenged—then the seminar format will be more productive for you.

Now, consider the consequences of failing to be attentive to the information you are gleaning about your learning style. If you do prefer the large lecture hall experience—but you’ve chosen a college where most of your classes put you front and center around the seminar table, won’t you feel like the proverbial “fish out of water”? On the other hand, if you really like the engagement of the small classroom but find yourself in a setting that features lectures of 300 or more students—all the time—will that learning environment bring out the best in you? In the final analysis, you are more likely to get the most out of your ability when you find yourself in an environment that is well suited to the way you learn.

And if your preference is to write a paper or do a project because you are more comfortable demonstrating your mastery in that manner (besides, you don’t feel you are a good test-taker!) a large university will not be the best fit. Professors in those environments will rely heavily on fill-in-the-bubble tests as they simply don’t have the time to critique hundreds of papers or projects.

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Take the time, then, to get to know yourself—and the circumstances in which you learn most comfortably. In doing so, you put yourself in a better position to make good choices that reflect your interests and needs.

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