Don Quixote, College Choice, and the Myth of Fit

On Friday, Mark Moody, co-director of college counseling at Colorado Academy, will co-present a panel session called “The Myth of Fit.” In a guest post, Mr. Moody, describes the perils of seeking the perfect-match college, and calls on college counselors to help redefine the terms of the college search.

Not too long ago in my office, I counseled a student distraught because the extensive spring break college tour from which he had just returned hadn’t yielded a discovery of “the right fit.” This seemed to be defined as El Dorado in college form, where everyone would share this young person’s worldview and interests—and the food was great. Each fall counselors have some tough talks with teenagers insistent that super-selective, name-brand colleges are the right fit for them, even if the admission profile of those colleges would suggest otherwise. We also see young people who earnestly struggle to identify the factors that will define fit for them, but who get derailed by “lifestyle” selling points of the colleges, like the ubiquitous gleaming athletic facility with climbing wall, touted in viewbooks and in admission officers’ seemingly interchangeable information sessions. From the student perspective, the Quest for Fit can be elusive, stressful, and frustrating.

There is a popular slogan posted in many college counseling offices: “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” This statement has become a mantra we repeat to families as an antidote to the media-driven obsession with rank, reputation, and prestige. The notion of “fit” or “match” once seemed to offer a metaphorical goal that would lead our conversations to more productive ground—to what my colleague Jeff Durso-Finley calls the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy, College Edition. What college attributes will contribute to your success and give you the support you need to meet your goals? What do you bring to a college community? What are some realistic parameters for your search? Increasingly, though, Fit showed up as a factor in student experiences that were counterproductive to the reflective, student-guided college search we want to support.

Beyond our offices, the college marketing machine has picked up on this counseling chestnut and spun Fit in new and creative ways. Fit has become one seriously over-determined signifier, co-opted so often and for such disparate ends as to become meaningless. Furthermore, whatever Fit represents is portrayed as ready-made; your “right fit” will be comfortable, easy, unchallenging, as if it were custom tailored. A few months ago I sat in on a presentation that included a representative of a consulting firm that helps colleges seek applicants with “fast apps,” those colorful, personalized invitations to apply that are sent to vast swaths of the 17-year-old public. That product’s altruistic goal, the sales rep explained cheerfully, flipping from slide to slide, is to help more colleges and students “find that right fit.” (Time of death for Fit, Concept of: Session C, Room 3, regional admission conference; cause: blunt trauma inflicted by PowerPoint.)

A few years ago, I was comparing notes with my colleagues Carl Ahlgren, of Baltimore’s Gilman School, and Jeff Durso-Finley, of The Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey, when we recognized the emergence of the “mid-sized urban school with great school spirit” (or MSUSWGSS) as the Holy Grail of Generation Fit. A by-product of our abuse of Fit, simultaneously one-size-fits-all and highly customized, this perfect college is academic, but fun, not too big, not too small. Its campus is, of course, reminiscent of Hogwarts; its dorms, spacious. The largest cross-section of our counselees described this mythic ideal as their “right fit,” usually assuming it was found in the far off lands where admit rates fall to single digits. Strange as it may seem, this is where Don Quixote rode into the conversation. Quixote’s tasks of knight-errantry are undertaken in the name of his beloved Dulcinea, of whom he proclaims, “all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her.” In fact, he has never seen her and she may or may not even exist; he has heard her name and ascribed attributes; she sounds a lot like the elusive MSUSWGSS.

Questioning Fit felt dangerous in professional gatherings, like hoisting a Jolly Roger over our counseling offices. But as we sailed our pirate ship into more counseling conferences, the more Fit’s absurdities became apparent—and the more we saw in Don Quixote an enlightening analogy to what we had begun to label The Myth of Fit.  As an evacuee of a foray into Spanish Lit grad school years ago, I recognized some familiar ideas. With apologies to theorist and Cervantes scholar Rene Girard, we have borrowed (looted?) some concepts. Girard illuminates the madness that besets Quixote via the concept of mimetic desire. After reading mountains of fantastical chivalric romances, Quixote takes as his role model the fictional Amadis of Gaul, whose adventures and infallibility make him the most spectacular of all chivalric heroes. Amadis becomes the “mediator” for Quixote’s desires and the way he acts on them—so that the old man’s actions reflect not what is best for himself in the real world (he takes a lot of beatings) but rather a projection of what he thinks Amadis would want and do. All the while, the deluded Quixote is convinced of the authenticity of his motivation and actions.

Enter the psychology of the American college-bound teenager. Writing our life’s narrative, we are all subject to the influence of mimetic desire. As teenagers we are exceptionally vulnerable to a special variety of Quixote’s madness. Our imaginations electrified by the Fiske Guide, we ride off and tilt at collegiate windmills. These are some of the first decisions we make that will impact our future directions, but we are still largely unshaped, full of potential and possibility. It is hard to avoid fixating on our own Amadis, alive in the viewbook;  MSUSWGSS-approved, living in a luxurious dorm, climbing in the gym, and lunching under grandiose arches between a high-profile internship and ground-breaking research.

Social media makes it easier than ever to create and project identities, strengthening the mediating role of that model, and distancing us from ourselves. Students have tremendous tools to “curate their lives,” as a writer friend of mine puts it, just as colleges carefully curate themselves in glossy publications and on Web sites. Identity-shaping elements become more meaningful decision-drivers than the factors that will truly affect a lived college experience.

We submit that Fit, though down for the count, can be resuscitated. We need to liberate Fit from self-esteem worries—from unrealistic expectations, from anxiety about the future, from beautiful but generic viewbooks, from personalized VIP applications—and ground it in reality. We need to be honest with kids about the shocking truth that, generally, the college choice isn’t that important. We know that most students will be successful at a wide range of institutions. The most important experiences and relationships we will have in college can’t be predicted, and each choice offers a different set of unknown pathways.

That uncertainty is kind of exciting if we can get students comfortable with the relative equality of each of those adventures—there will be good and bad classroom experiences, defining friendships and emotional breakups, unexpected and inspiring opportunities anywhere. Most importantly, those moments that challenge us, that push us, that make us uncomfortable—when we come face to face with the un-Fit of a place—those are the ones that really allow for growth and lead us to healthy adulthood. We should describe Fit as an ongoing process; a “good fit” college should come off the rack a little baggy and unflattering; with time a student grows into it. Tailor it too soon and you’re stuck with a style that might come to embarrass you, the way those high school graduation portraits tend to do after a while.

Our colleague Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, once captured the frustration of a conversation about the whole business of Fit when she exclaimed, “Fit happens!” Happily, this tongue-in-cheek phrase nails it. We hope it can become the new counseling office motto, opening our kids to unexpected possibilities and a more authentic, empowering and reflective transition to the next phase of their lives.

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