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There are two approaches to shopping: hope something stands out as you browse the aisles or know what you need beforehand. This was especially true when I recently tried to pick out a pair of running shoes.

Rows of road-running shoes, trail-runners and styles that offered cushioning, stability or motion-control loomed in front of me at the store. The choices were overwhelming because my search was too vague. Each running shoe offered something unique and it became increasingly important to focus on what I needed. What were the ultimate factors for me? Fit and support.

Find a Fit

My running shoe search is comparable to your college search. Like my shoe options, there are many higher education options out there. When each college or university boasts solid academics and a plethora of degrees and clubs, how will you narrow it down?

First and foremost, have confidence in yourself and trust in the process. Admission offices want you to know that as a first-generation college student, you have much to offer colleges in terms of your perspective and background. Schools want you and the perspective you bring to the classroom and the greater college community.

Start making a list of what you want. If you enjoy smaller class sizes and favor classroom participation, you might write down a liberal arts college as a potential fit. Making a list of your hobbies and academic interests will help you find the college that bests fits you and everything you bring to the table. If you don’t know where to start, the College Board offers great resources, as does the Find section of this website.

Finding a college “fit” takes time and patience, but it’s out there! If you feel like you’re doing this on your own, remember that there are people who can help you find your college fit. Admissions officers on college campuses are experts about their colleges and would be happy to answer your questions. Your high school guidance counselor is an excellent resource for college and career ideas, too.

Focus on Support

While a stylish running shoe appeared to be everything I wanted, if it didn’t provide me with the support that I needed, then it wasn’t for me. The same principle applies to your college search: Once you’ve found a college that provides what you’re looking for, it’s important to think about the support that it offers you in areas such as academic resources, advising and campus diversity.

Try to discover the culture of each college and visit the campus if possible. Do professors have office hours so that students can stop by and get to know them? Are students championing each other toward success? Smaller colleges can offer a supportive, welcoming environment that is focused on your education and career success. For example, most liberal arts colleges offer discussion-facilitated classes for all incoming students, which can help build a sense of community on campus.

Talia Rudee, a senior sociology and environmental studies major at Whitman College, shares, “I chose Whitman College because the school offered more than just academics. There was an excellent sense of community and support that I knew would make a great four years.”

Build a Strong Support System

In running, sometimes the biggest hurdles aren’t faced on the road. It can be as simple as summoning the motivation. Similarly, college is about being challenged, inside and outside of the classroom. Building a strong support system is crucial to your college success; while many of the friends that you make in college will be lifelong friends, you shouldn’t limit yourself to making friends with students alone. In fact, the strength of an alumni network is an important factor to consider when choosing a school.

In addition, most colleges and universities have a professional development office that offers internship opportunities; take advantage of opportunities like this to further your professional development. Employers want to see your initiative; and, internships often lead to job offers.

At Whitman, our Student Engagement Center offers alumni networking opportunities in major cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Some of our graduates are working at places like Google, Microsoft and Facebook because of alumni connections. College is a time to dream big! Have confidence that others will support your endeavors.

Learn About Financial Support

When you are looking at colleges, contact the financial aid office and ask about the scholarships and grants that are available to you. One of the worst mistakes a student can make in the college search process is not applying to a school because it seems too expensive. Sometimes the most expensive schools have the most generous financial aid.

A popular quote says, “The journey of 1,000 miles often begins with the first step.” Start your college journey with the right fit and you’ll be prepared to go the distance.