Choosing a College: The Virtues of a Good Misfit

All the talk about helping prospective students find "the perfect fit" may be discouraging them from truly valuable experiences at colleges where they may thrive, writes Diana Senechal.

December 3, 2018
 
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As high school seniors pore over college possibilities -- whether at the beginning of the application process or later -- they are persistently, insistently advised to seek a “good fit.” The College Board offers online interactive tools for seeking such a fit. Numerous college applications ask students to explain why a particular institution would suit them. “Good fit, good fit” -- the phrase rings throughout college brochures, application manuals, recruiters’ speeches, interview questions and more. Yet if students instead sought a good misfit -- an institution that did not necessarily match their preferences and predilections -- they could bring greater adventurousness and resilience to their studies and life.

In no way do I mean that students should seek out extreme isolation, discomfort or stress. A Jew need not consider a college with an overwhelming Christian emphasis (or vice versa), unless this student has a particular reason to do so. A prospective philosophy major is usually well advised to consider colleges with a philosophy department. A student with strong family bonds and responsibilities does not have to fly 3,000 miles away from home. Students and parents need not take out more money in loans than they can pay back over time. Nor need a student ignore strong attractions to particular colleges: there may be good reasons for them. Nor is comfort itself to be scoffed at; there is no inherent virtue in rejecting a welcoming place for something cold, unfriendly, and vast.

Barring those extremes, the search for a “good misfit” could open up possibilities. Unburdened of the pressure to find the perfect match, students could focus on seeking colleges with the most substantial offerings. No longer concerned with perfect comfort and compatibility, the student can make interesting selections. This requires not only research -- into course offerings, programs and faculty -- but introspection as well: Which courses would I like to take? What major might I pursue? Which classes would I like to attend? With which professors would I like to speak during a visit to the college?

This intellectual focus can lead, over time, to rich fellowship and friendship. Without the pressure to find their group right away, or to feel instantly part of things, students can come together over books, ideas, problems and projects. One’s new peer group may be entirely unexpected -- a bunch of people who discuss Milton over breakfast -- or it may not be a group at all. Students may have different friends in different classes and activities, and they may also enjoy time alone. Being part of a group no longer holds full sway; thinking on one’s own, taking time with ideas in quiet, regains old honor.

Relieved of the good fit, students can also face difficulties without fear. They can see their own awkwardness not as personal failure but as a necessary stage. I remember my awkwardness as a freshman at Yale University. I found no one there like my high school friends; I felt slightly out of sorts and out of place, not intellectually, but in the sense of fitting in and getting along, which others seemed to be doing. I then made one friend with whom I spent almost all my free time (and time that wasn’t really free); we laughed together, went for late-night pizza, talked for hours and skipped through the snow singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs. For all the good that this friendship brought, it also came at a cost: I neglected other people and my studies. Had I accepted my initial discomfort at Yale (a place I came to love over time), had I recognized the roughness as part of my education, I might have taken it in stride.

Misfitting can enrich not only the students, but the colleges themselves. When students seek not to fit in, but to learn from each other and their studies, they enliven the college itself. Students -- and professors and administrators -- who welcome difference, who seek out conversation with those of different views, deepen the college’s diversity and humanity. In such an environment, some students may even decide against transferring to another college. According to a 2018 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, of the 2.8 million students who entered college for the first time in the fall of 2011, over one million (38 percent) transferred to another institution within six yeas. Such transfers must have multiple reasons -- but one of these must be that students, egged on by colleges and others, expect to fit in right away. Take away this expectation, and students may well choose to stay put and learn more from their surroundings. The colleges could gain not only stability and participation, but something of the spirit of liberal education.

All this said, the “good misfit” should not become a new buzzword or panacea. It does not address the problem of discernment, for instance. The student must still distinguish, in case after case, between harmful incompatibility and the kinds that brings good. A small arts college may be too insular for a particular individual, or it may allow for focused, playful work and lasting bonds. A particular calculus course may offer healthy challenge, or it may be far above a student’s head. A new friendship may be entering a rocky period, or it may not be a friendship at all. No idea or solution can replace the difficult, unending task of assessing situations, making subtle distinctions, exercising judgment and taking action.

Nonetheless, we can tease apart the notion of a “good fit” and allow for some salutary misfitting -- in college searches, college applications, college selection, college itself and life. No longer expecting a given college to match them, students can take a long view, welcoming the stumbles and falls, the butting of heads, that lead to learning and wisdom. The benefits of such thinking have no end.

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