Where do I belong?

That mysterious substance guidance counsellors call 'fit' is not so mysterious anymore

Where do I belong?

Studying into the night at Mount Saint Vincent | Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Deanna Jarvis, the 19-year-old first-year student on our cover, says she knows the University of Guelph is the right place for her. She’s just not sure why. Maybe it’s the gold and red leaves that litter the campus in the fall. She could never live in a concrete jungle, she says. Perhaps it’s that Guelph offers a rare major (adult development, families and wellbeing) that will teach her how to help people. “I just like to listen to friends and help them,” she says. Or maybe it’s that Guelph is a big enough school to keep famous playwrights like Judith Thompson on staff. Jarvis, a parttime actor, is a huge Thompson fan. Whatever the reason, Guelph just seems to fit.

Parents, students, university presidents and even education marketers are trying to nail down exactly what makes a school fit. Traditionally, school size and city size were the shorthand for determining where a particular student should go. Big schools offer more cultural opportunities; tiny schools offer more personal interaction, or so the theory goes. Those rules still apply, but sociologist James Côté, of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., has found another predictor for what he calls the “goodness of fit.” His research found students do best when their inner motivations match what the environment has to offer.

Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University, agrees that students should look inward to determine the best school for them. “For some students it will be a small, intimate, collegial environment,” says Traves. “For other students, their personalities will be sufficiently expansive and their strength of purpose and needs will be such that going to a small environment will be too much like an extension of high school.”

Côté would agree, but says university officials are not the only people to ask. “You’ll have to do the digging yourself,” he says. Some “universities don’t want to alienate prospective students who aren’t the right fit,” he explains. “Because they’re funded by tuition and the number of bums in seats.”

Assuming they’re not going to university because of parental pressure, most students have one of three motivations, according to Côté: the “personal and intellectual” motivation, the “career and materialism” motivation, or the “humanitarian” motivation.

For the student whose goal is to develop personally and intellectually, a small liberalarts oriented school is best, he says. “A good liberal arts education really requires smaller class sizes, so you can have seminars and contact with faculty,” he explains. “You’ll also be required to do more public speaking and writing. A large school simply can’t do this.” St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., and Quest University in Squamish, B.C., are examples of schools where students seeking personal and intellectual growth will find it, he says.

Large, reputable schools like McGill and the University of Toronto fit students who are personally and intellectually motivated, says Côté, but be sure “you’re outgoing or able to work on your own.” Students who choose the school primarily for its reputation, says Côté, need to remember that “they may never see any of the profs that make those schools famous.”

The second type of student, the “careeristmaterialist,” is someone who wants a degree mainly for the job and prestige. “The careeristmaterialist might fit at schools that are vocationally oriented,” says Côté. “We’re going that direction at Western,” he says, giving the example of the increasing popularity of degrees like the bachelor of management and organizational studies over the traditional broad B.A.

The third (and more rare) motivation to study is altruism. Côté offers King’s University College (a Western affiliate) as a good fit for the “humanitarianism-motivated” student, because of its social justice focus.

Ken Steele, an education marketing expert, agrees with Côté that universities themselves are unlikely to help you determine fit. Most universities are still trying to be “everything to everyone,” he says. However, he has seen a few encouraging examples of schools that are marketing with “goodness of fit” in mind. “Acadia [in Wolfville, N.S.] actually says it’s not for everyone,” explains Steele. “They want students to know they’re coming to a small town and that’s going to be a shock for some of them.”

William Barker, president of the University of King’s College in Halifax (an even smaller school than Acadia), suggests visiting as many schools as possible, sitting in on lectures, and staying overnight with a friend.

That’s advice Côté wants parents to hear. He says more parents should encourage their offspring to explore far and wide; too often they encourage offspring to choose the closest school to home in order to save money. “You may save a lot financially in the short run, but you will have lost in the long run,” he says. If a person fails at university because it’s the wrong fit, they risk losing millions of dollars in lifetime earnings, he explains—and it’s not a cheap investment. “If parents were forking out this kind of money in the stock market or real estate, they’d look at it much more carefully,” says Côté.

Of course, not everyone can afford to fly around the country to research each school. That’s why Maclean’s asked successful students from four schools exactly what makes their university the right fit for them. Their answers prove just how important it is for future students to ask themselves who they are and why they want a degree. Why? Just ask Côté. “If you don’t develop goals of what you want to get out of university, you potentially squander the most transformative experience of your life.”

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