There are four key features that students must consider when choosing the right college – Academic fit, Social fit, Financial fit and Vocational fit. We all know that college is very different from high school. But, just how different is it really?

Academic fit refers to how the faculty teaches, academic priorities of the college, what the learning environment is like and even the distinct curriculum types that a college may offer. A thorough review of the college’s website and campus visit can help with determining the academic fit.

Prior to even taking those steps, it helps to understand the bigger picture of how colleges are distinguished by the type of academic curriculum. In my experiences working with families, few give consideration to these distinctions or are even aware they exist. From a college admissions perspective, students must be at least aware of these distinctions as they write their application essays and/or interview at colleges. Once admitted, these distinctions can make a significant difference in the classes that students can take in college and their overall satisfaction with the academic rigor.

The three types of academic curriculum are  open, core, or distributed. Let’s briefly discuss each type, key differences and colleges to explore:


Is an open curriculum the right academic fit?

There are only a hand-full of colleges and Universities that provide a truly open curriculum. Open curriculum means that students are free to choose which classes they want to take. There are no general education requirements and students may design their own path to a major or concentration. There may be specific requirements within a particular major, but students are free to pick from any range of classes.

Examples of schools with Open Curriculum include:smith engineering summer program academic fit

Quite frankly, not every student can handle an open curriculum. Sure, these colleges may have the brand name, but students must be very disciplined to navigate four years of undergraduate in these institutions with open curriculum.

Is Columbia University’s Core the right academic fit?

The use of a Core curriculum started in 1919 at Columbia College and has been their primary approach to higher education. A Core curriculum means that there are specific courses that all students must take regardless of their majors. (In fact, when you visit the Columbia campus, a building lists the authors of core readings for all undergrads.) The idea is to provide every student with a broad range of knowledge in many subjects and to support intellectual growth.

Other colleges with a core curriculum:

  • Auburn University
  • Boston University
  • Purdue University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Notre Dame


Academic fit can be unique at most colleges

A distributed curriculum is a hybrid of a core and open curriculum. There are not specific classes that every student is required to take but there are guidelines to the number of classes that each student must take in a given academic area. This curriculum provides the student with the flexibility to choose a class that interests them while still providing a structure to their education.

The majority of colleges in the US have distribution requirements. What I enjoyed about a distributed curriculum when I attended Stanford is that I took classes in areas that I may not have learned about otherwise. For example, as an undergraduate, I studied Calculus, Petroleum Engineering, Philosophy, but fell in love with Linguistics (a topic I had never heard of before college!).

Colleges with distributed curriculum:academic fit based on sfs or college or mcdonough


The next step to take now with this insight is to match the needs and interests of student. For example, if a teen has an interest in engineering and does not enjoy writing, then it will be important to research colleges that offer engineering but has little to no writing requirements for graduation. After the research is completed, if a teen is still interested, an official campus visit is the next step before applying!


How have you helped your teen with finding the right academic fit?


Author: Pamela E

Dr. Pamela has helped thousands of teens attend the college of their choice. She brings her 25 years experience in education to assist families, schools, and employers with college selection, admissions, financial aid, and more. Dr. Pamela holds a PhD from Stanford School of Education, and an MBA from Dartmouth.

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