College Prep: The right college must be a ‘Mahvelous’ fit |

College Prep: The right college must be a ‘Mahvelous’ fit

Brian Underwood
Special to the Nevada Appeal

Legendary actor Fernando Lamas reportedly uttered it. Comedian Billy Crystal definitely ran with it. And now, more than 25 years later, many high school seniors are seriously contemplating it.

The phrase behind it all – It is better to look good than to feel good – is, to be sure, a wonderful quip from pop culture history, but it is an unquestionably treacherous notion when considering which college to attend. And many do.

Whether or not he actually articulated it on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as Billy Crystal alleges, the comedian got miles out of Lamas’ alleged tongue-in-cheek remark about the value of form over substance through his portrayal of “Fernando” on Saturday Night Live during the mid-80s.

This quote most certainly predates those who are currently considering which college to choose. However, the rationale some students use to select a college is often equally superficial.

Accepting, but putting aside for a moment, the purported long-term financial advantage a particular school is reported to offer, or the perceived qualitative difference of one school versus another, or even the temporal charge a filled stadium with screaming fans might provide, it is critical that all of the above are byproducts of an institution that, first and foremost, fits and feels right.

The right fit represents an institution’s ability to meet a student’s core values and needs as well as his or her academic, social, and emotional requirements. The Personal Inventory of College Styles assessment ( mentioned previously helps assess this. Fit is the cerebral part of the process.

The “feel” is the emotional component that comes with reconciling the mind and the heart of the matter.

“The feel of the school is important,” writes Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga. in the March 22, 2010, online edition of US News & World Report. “It needs to be an atmosphere that you’re comfortable in, with people of like minds, and where you feel you can do your best work.”

Veteran education writer Jay Mathews of the Washington Post likens the college selection process to that of buying a house.

“Choosing a college is much more like buying a house,” Mathews writes in his book Harvard Schmarvard (one of the most helpful college planning books on the market). “It is a major investment, but only those few people obsessed with real estate expect their choice of residence to change their life.”

Translation – some of the preconceived notions about the material advantages a college selection may provide belies the importance of how it fits and feels for a student. And while the façade may create various impulses, at the end of the day, a house is not a home – unless it feels right.

“Picking a school is at least as much fun as picking a house and should be handled with the same clear-eyed assessment of each possibility’s assets and drawbacks,” Mathews continues. “… You will find it has unforeseen flaws, but what doesn’t? … Either way it is your heart and soul that will make your fortune, not the size of the college’s endowment or whether it was founded before the Revolutionary War.”

After conducting all the research, enduring all the meeting with counselors, and compiling all the lists, it comes down to the most critical aspect of all – the visit.

Opinions vary widely as to whether or not one should visit potential schools before or after applications are due. There are valid arguments both ways, which opens the door for a compromise of visiting at least some schools (even those that might seemingly be out of the picture) to gain perspective.

“College visits are an essential part of building your college list,” say Howard and Matthew Greene of Peterson’s College Search ( “You don’t need to see every college before you apply, but you should see some representative models and then pursue more of those that are like the ones you prefer.

“Before you hit the road, though, you should know what’s potentially a good fit, and you should do enough browsing and research to make the visits worthwhile.”

There are a number of excellent websites that allow users to insert very specific search criteria, such as size of school, location, major, cost, etc, and also – admissibility, based on self-reported GPA and test score information. Two to consider are http://www.col and

To look and feel “Mahvelous” (another Fernando reference for Saturday Night Live fans) in the college planning arena, earnest self reflection, finding the right fit, and thoughtful reflection on the right feel are critical. Next time, we’ll look at how to maximize the college visit to help validate the role of feel in the process.

• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School.