The Truth About Name Brand Colleges: Why Fit Matters More Than Prestige

05/27/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

The college admissions process is all but wrapped up for the high school class of 2015, and from now until the fall, graduating high school seniors will be constantly answering the question, "Where are you going to college?"

For some, the answer is Harvard, Stanford, Princeton or another highly selective institution. For others, it might be State U, a small liberal arts college or even community college. Whether the college student's answer is a private, top-tier institution or large, public university, it should be their best-fit option -- not the best sounding name.

Admission rates to some of the country's top institutions have been dropping for years now, with many admitting less than 10 percent of applicants. This makes these colleges all the more desirable to some applicants because of the idea that validation comes from being admitted to one of these highly selective colleges.

The truth is that selectivity or name brand doesn't make a college a good choice for you. Just ask one of the students who was admitted to all eight Ivy League colleges this year. He turned them all down to attend the University of Alabama, which best met his financial and academic needs.

When building a college list and preparing for the application process this summer, students' priority should always be on fit -- not the weight of a school's name.

Why is "fit" such an important quality in admissions?

Just like anything else in life, when something is a good fit, it works. Students that attend colleges that match their academic, social and financial needs, while still providing an academically challenging environment, are more likely to thrive and graduate on time. On the other hand, students who attend colleges that are not a good fit -- either because they're too academically rigorous, not rigorous enough, socially stifling or too expensive -- are more likely to struggle, feel anxiety and stress and not get out in four years. In fact, some of the colleges with the highest graduation rates aren't in the Ivy League.

It's good fit that leads to good outcomes -- not the name of a school. Just look at some of the colleges with the highest starting salaries. Colleges like Montana Tech and Oregon Health and Science University are among the top 10 colleges with the highest early-career salaries -- with Stanford and the Ivy Leagues barely making the top 25.

No single college is going to be a great fit for every student, and this especially applies to the Ivy Leagues and other prestigious colleges. Just because an institution has a recognizable name doesn't mean it's going to guarantee success in college or your career.

Colleges look at fit, too.

When evaluating college applicants, admissions officers aren't just looking for the applicants with the best grades and test scores; they're also looking to see who would best fit into the campus community. Every college is different in terms of campus culture, academics, college life and more, but they're all looking to build a well-rounded class of specialists that will not only thrive and graduate in four years, but also meet the school's institutional needs.

If a student is impressive on paper, but doesn't seem like a good fit for the campus culture or has needs the school can't fulfill, he or she probably won't be admitted. Rather than just take all the best applicants, colleges want to admit students that will make an impact on the school and contribute to the community. In admissions, fit goes both ways -- students should look for best-fit colleges while colleges look for best-fit students.

What to look for when choosing a "good fit" college.

When researching colleges for your balanced college list, fit should be a priority. But how do you know if a college is right for you? Consider the things that matter most to you, including academics, size, location, athletics, activities, research opportunities, etc. A college that's a good fit for you is going to meet most, if not all, of your priorities.

For example, a small liberal arts college with limited STEM programs might not be the best fit for a student looking to become an engineer. A student who is looking for an intimate classroom experience at a small college in a rural area might not thrive at a large university in the middle of a big city. This is where fit and preference trumps name brand. Don't apply to Stanford just because it's prestigious when you actually want to study at a small college on the east coast.

The college application is stressful enough without having to compromise your needs and goals in order to attend a college just because of its name. Remember, the college experience is what you make of it, so apply to colleges where you'll be happy and successful -- not the schools you think will sound most impressive.