What Does Fit Really Mean?

High school guidance counselors and independent college consultants often talk with students about finding colleges that are good “fits” for them. The message behind “fit” is that students should choose colleges where they will be challenged academically, engaged in extracurricular activities, and happy socially rather than because of selectivity, “institutional prestige” or rankings. And I agree – students should attend colleges where they will thrive inside and outside of the classroom. But “fit” is a complicated term and one that we need to be careful using.

At a recent workshop I attended, Lawrence Alexander, a national expert on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging in higher education, explained that “fit” implies students need to fit into the mold of the dominant culture on a college campus. In other words, “fit” is a code word for similarity, suggesting that students of color must adapt to a predominantly white college culture.

Language matters, as Tierney Bates, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Special Projects, and the Executive Director of University Career Services at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, explains. Thus, in a recent article in NACE, Bates advocates for the elimination of the word “fit” “for the simple fact that America is based on Eurocentric ideals, so there was never room for growth or opportunity for people of color or people of different backgrounds to be truly embraced with the word ‘fit’.”

Bill Conley, the former Vice President for Enrollment at Bucknell University, and the co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, notes that fit has too often come to mean conformity. In a 2019 article in Forbes he says, “I think the word ‘fit’ is no longer a healthy word to associate with college admissions. It seems more people see ‘fit’ as ‘conform’. Students should not seek conformity if that will not allow them to grow. College should not be seeking ‘conformity’ as that implies they do not wish to evolve as an institution.”

Conley suggests using the term “match” instead. But, match has traditionally referred to academics – “matching” a colleges’ profile with students’ GPA and test scores, according to Willard Dix, a former admissions officer at Amherst College and contributor to Forbes. And even if guidance counselors and independent consultants focus on match as broader than just academics, merely replacing one term with another may be insufficient.

Instead, it’s important when guiding students on choosing colleges to use words carefully and acknowledge that neither “match” nor “fit” are perfect words or static terms. Northwestern University is very upfront about the fact that “fit” does not mean the same thing to all students, and that there is not one way to “fit” on their campus. They describe fit as “a story you tell us about how you see yourself thriving on campus.” Put this way, students may not feel that they must conform to a particular campus culture to be successful but rather can find different ways to grow as a student and person while in college.

When I work with students and families, I ask them to begin with the end: what does a successful outcome look like for them? That, in essence, is what choosing a college is all about – where will a student thrive? No buzz word can capture all of that, which is why I will now try harder to use language that is not only more inclusive, but more accurate.