Beyond Brand Name, Why College Fit Matters More than Rank

The world’s most satisfying discoveries are revealed to open-minded people, who are willing to explore new ideas. This open-mindedness can be a struggle for some students when it comes to the college process. They embark on the journey with certain ideas, often taken from national rankings and what they hear from friends and family, about which schools are the “right” schools. I actively encourage my students to try to remain open to new ideas for their college lists. Why? Because no school is the “best” or “right” school for every student, no matter how highly it is ranked or how fancy its reputation. Instead, we need to start with the student and ask ourselves what he or she needs from college in order to succeed.

Nothing can compare to the spectacularity and complexity of a human being. This core belief informs my work matching students with colleges. My goal is not to only match individuals to colleges where they can get in, but to identify colleges where the student can truly thrive. Working in higher and secondary education for over 35 years has strengthened my belief that young people must begin this life-framing decision with clear eyes and an open mind, which sets the stage for selecting colleges that serve the student’s best interests and needs.

Many students today come to the process with certain colleges already in mind, but this initial list is all too often informed by external factors like national rankings. While a school’s reputation and academic strength is certainly important, I encourage my students to take a step back and first look to internal factors – who are they and what are they looking for in a college – before turning to the schools and evaluating them.

My first step to creating an optimal college list is to discover the student’s distinct individual profile. There are many ways to assess individual traits and personalities; I use the Birkman Signature Report to map my student’s unique qualities. Not only does the Birkman help me create a custom college list, the information provided boosts student’s self-awareness exponentially and becomes even more valuable as they leave home and grow into their future self.  

In my upcoming book SELF-Accepted, I explore the value of identifying unique traits and using self-awareness to empower the college application process, especially the personal essay. On the flip side of the calm waters of self-acceptance are pressures prompted by college rankings. When people look to lists first, instead of looking within, the concept of status replaces the focus on the student. College rankings, if used at all, can empower students when deciding between 2 or 3 colleges once admitted but should not guide the initial search phase.

Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Begin by identifying and embracing a student’s unique qualities, abilities, interests, and needs. Then dive into the rich landscape of colleges to find a few that will fit the student.

After creating an initial list it’s vital to visit college campuses. I recommend starting close to home and then moving outside the student’s familiar territory. As each snowflake has a center from which millions of intricate connections form, so each college search begins with a single and unique person who will find many fitting college options. Only by starting with individuality can one recognize the colleges that suit them best.


Dr. Beth Dennard, a Certified Educational Planner, licensed therapist, and Birkman Consultant earned her doctorate in education from the University of Houston. She has visited nearly 400 colleges and has worked in both college admissions and high school guidance. Beth introduced educational consulting to Houston’s Bay Area in 1999. Her professionalism and passion for helping people succeed is based on her approach; she simplifies the search, structures the application process and encourages students to communicate their strengths. Beth and her team of 5 professionals work with clients locally and globally. To learn more about their work, visit

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