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It's the buzzword you keep hearing. It's the question you keep asking -- "Is this college a good fit?" But what does "fit" really mean?

I break the fit concept into three major areas: social, academic and financial.

To determine a social fit, students need to:

*Make a visit for themselves and see what it's like. Do they like the layout of the campus, the architecture, the facilities and the surrounding city or town? Is there enough to do on campus and off campus to keep them entertained over the course of their college career? Do they see students who look like them?

*Understand what kind of geographic location meets their needs. Many students start their college search process swearing they want to move away, far away from home, but once the romance of being afar wears off and the reality of connecting flights and expensive fares settles in, they are willing to readjust their thinking. Questions to ask focus on the climate, proximity to urban amenities and cost.

*Figure out where enrollment size falls on a list of priorities. If exuberant school spirit and having a top-notch football team are crucial, then factor that into the mix.

*Determine the role religion will play in the college experience. Many colleges founded by various religious groups have a nondenominational feel, so don't prejudge. Some students are comforted by the opportunities to affiliate with students from their religion.

*Investigate campus safety measures. Talk to current students and read the literature about new safety installations and programs such as text alerts, etc.

*Find out about special housing opportunities such as "living and learning communities." These are residential programs where students with specialized interests have direct connections with faculty. Communities range from language houses to community service, environmental awareness and writing. Students often receive specialized guidance on academic issues and career planning.

*Research the list of student activities. Are there some that match their interests? This is where students find out if the college is a good fit emotionally, athletically, culturally and spiritually. It all depends on what is important to them.

*Understand their own likes and dislikes. Do they want to participate in Greek life in college? Greek participation varies greatly.

*Try the food, particularly if the student is a fussy eater.

*Spend a night in the dorm. This is one of the best ways for a student to figure out if they'll feel comfortable socially.

Students need to be educated consumers and know what they're looking for before making their purchase.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.