In high school, fitting in means finding your best fit

When we think about looking for a school, a variety of priorities may come to mind. From the location of the school to the style of instruction, there are so many components that go into the decision-making process to identify the school that’s right. That, coupled with the amount of choice available here in Chicago — you’ve got your neighborhood, selective enrollment, private, and parochial schools — can be intimidating and the nuances of the application processes can be overwhelming. With so many options, how can you determine which is the best choice for your learner? 

Enter Fit. Fit is the intersection of your needs and wants, and the institution’s offerings. It’s a slightly nebulous concept designed to encourage families to consider their values and expectations as they research, visit, and consult with schools. Finding your fit is old news for those familiar with the post-secondary search process, but the concept may be new to families with younger learners. For many, your fit school exists at the intersection of your academic, social-emotional, and financial needs. But how do you determine your needs, when so much of the school search process feels intangible?

Consider your values

First, consider your values, the things that really matter to your family. 

  • Are you seeking a school that with name recognition and prestige?  
  • An environment that will cultivate your student’s faith and commitment to religion? 
  • A school that will promote your learner’s self-efficacy and inspires them to interrogate their relationship to the world around them? 
  • An environment that provides a meaningful learning and social experience where your young person will develop strong relationships with teachers and peers?  
  • An environment that is safe.
  • A school that will cultivate your child’s leadership skills and post-secondary success? 

Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive, but articulating your school-specific values can help narrow your search early.

Establish expectations

Then, analyze your expectations. What do you believe is the purpose of schooling? In your opinion, what should a school provide (or not) for your family? What job are you hiring the school to do? Your chosen school should not only align with your values but serve as a partner in meeting your expectations. 

Next, close your eyes and imagine your student’s high school experience (this is a great activity for your learner, too). What does the school look like? How many people are there? What does it feel like? What’s available there – a dynamic sports program, large community events, internships and externships, expansive makerspaces and state-of-the-art facilities, access to public transportation, highly qualified teachers, personalized attention, standardized test prep, etc. By ideating your ideal school you can start to align your expectations and values, and determine the things your school absolutely must have (your non-negotiables). 

After you’ve reflected on what you’re looking for, ask questions. Reach out to your list of schools and connect with faculty, staff, and current families to get a sense of why they chose the school. Then ask lots of questions, the more questions the better.

Here’s a sample of the types of questions we encourage: 

What time does school start? Why?

Is financial aid available? What’s the application process?

Is there counseling and social-emotional learning support?

Is there a dress code? A uniform? 

Are students expected to participate in extracurriculars?

Are students welcoming and engaged?

How many students are in clubs?

What is the mode of instruction?

What’s the homework load? 

How many standardized tests do students take annually?

How available are teachers? 

Is tutoring available? 

Is there post-secondary planning support? 

What do graduates do after high school? 

Are there internship and work exposure opportunities? 

How do students commute to and from school? 

How many students are there? What’s the size of the campus?

Experience it

And finally, get a feel for the environment. That means, schedule a visit to campus. Can you envision yourself in the classrooms, the library, the cafeteria? Do you feel like you belong? 

In the most simplistic terms, fit is a means for discovering where you may belong. It’s not magic, but a deeply and intentionally reflective process that will help ensure your student’s long-term success. It’s important to understand that your best-fit school might not check every box, but it will check those that are the most important. Your best-fit school will offer the academic challenge and support that you need, the campus culture, internship, and extracurriculars that you’re seeking, and it will be financially accessible for your family. And when it aligns with your values and fulfills your expectations, that’s the place you belong.

high school students finding their fit

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Sarah Brock

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