Beginning the College Search Process
Tips on the College Search Process
What are the Colleges Looking For?
Beginning the College Search Process
Many students need some help as they begin to think about themselves as college candidates and try to establish criteria for colleges they want to investigate. Here are a few questions parents and students might begin with. They are, obviously, directed at the student.
- What are your academic interests?
- What are your strengths as a student? In the classroom? Outside of the classroom?
- Have you worked to your potential at Deerfield? What sort of academic challenge do you hope to find in college? Are you often one of the leaders of your classes here, or do you find yourself pedaling hard to keep up with your work? (Which position is more comfortable for you?)
- Do you enjoy regular interaction with faculty mentors?
- How do you prefer to be assessed as a student: in seminar discussions? on exams? frequent writing assignments? longer research papers? collaborative or individual projects?
- What activities do you enjoy the most outside of class?
- Do your activities show any pattern of commitment, competence, or contribution?
- What do you consider your greatest contribution to your community? (school or local)
- Which interests do you plan to pursue in college and beyond?
- What are the characteristics that you feel are crucial for you in a college?
- Are any particular facilities important to you?
- Do you hope to find a politically active campus? If so, are their certain student groups or voices you hope to see represented?
- What sort of social opportunities do you hope to find in college?
- Is a particular location important to you? To your parents?
- Do you need academic structure? What curricular requirements do you expect a college to have, if any?
- Does the composition of the student body matter to you? Describe.
- Will financial aid be a factor? If so, you and your parents need to consider that from the outset of your search.
The more self-aware students are in this process the easier it will be. If students can be specific about what they want in a college, it is easier to help them identify colleges that fit their criteria. Of course, we understand that many students, especially at this early stage, don’t yet have a clear understanding of what they are looking for and we are here to help them.
Tips on the College Search Process
We recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which gives excellent thumbnail sketches of colleges, and the Princeton Review’s Best 376 Colleges. The College Advising Office offers a collection of college catalogs, admissions-related advice books, videos, and viewbooks. Of course, the internet is brimming with information, and most students find what they need online. A few sites we have found useful for students are collegeboard.org, gocollege.com, and unigo.com. Individual college websites provide students with the latest information about their campuses and their admission criteria.
Deerfield subscribes to Naviance, an Internet database that we find to be tremendously helpful in the college search process. Deerfield juniors will be given access to their own personal account on the Deerfield Naviance site in mid-November. Naviance helps students research colleges and keep track of their prospective colleges and active applications. The website gives students, parents, and counselors information about the likelihood of individual student’s admission to each college based on the results of previous Deerfield students. Naviance can show students exactly where they fall on a graph of test scores (x axis) and GPA (y axis) of other DA students who applied in prior years to each college. It is important to note, however, when looking at these graphs that “hooked” students (recruited athletes, legacies, underrepresented minorities, first generation college students, and development cases) are not flagged as such and will skew the averages somewhat. The Naviance graphs help students, advisors, and parents to develop a balanced list of “reach,” “possible,” and “safer” schools.
The vast majority of our students go on to very selective colleges and universities. The biggest hurdle that many of them face is their desire to apply to the same short list of colleges to which many of their classmates at Deerfield, and students at other New England boarding and day schools, are also interested. The Ivy League is setting new records each year for numbers of applications, from all over the world. Many smaller colleges (Amherst, Williams, Colgate, Middlebury, Bowdoin, for example) have also become highly, highly selective. It is imperative that students look beyond the Northeast and beyond short list of Ivies and NESCACs in order to consider the full range of wonderful colleges available to them. In addition to considering all a college may offer to meet your academic and extra-curricular interests, pay careful attention to two pieces of information regarding selectivity as you consider a particular college: What percentage of the students who applied were admitted last year? What are the average test scores of those admitted, and how do they compare with yours? If you are willing to expand your horizons a bit, you may find an incredible college that’s perfect for you– and one that accepts more than 5% of its applicants.
A word of caution—please make your own decisions regarding the relative merits of colleges based on current information. It is easy to be influenced by stereotypes and past reputations, but times change and so do institutions! To be sure, some evaluations will appear whimsical or superficial (Was the sun shining when you visited? Did you have an attractive, charming, and witty tour guide? Was the interview particularly enjoyable?), while others are more profound (Does this college have the program you are seeking? Is there a good match between your ability and the intellectual life of the college?). Remember that different colleges appeal to different individuals for a variety of reasons, and try to base your opinions on first-hand knowledge of a particular institution’s unique characteristics coupled with a realistic understanding of the student’s needs and talents. U.S. News & World Report and other similar ranking systems give only the most superficial glimpse of a college; they are certainly not ranking with your individual needs and talents in mind. On a more personal note, what is the best fit for your hall-mate (or your older sibling, parents, etc) may not be the best fit for you. Try to avoid falling into the trap of exalting rankings and other peoples’s ideas of what makes a great college, and look for places that feel right to you. Ideally, those colleges will agree, and will be happy to admit an applicant who seems like just the right fit for their community.
What are the Colleges Looking For?
Academic Program and Record
A student’s academic performance—the courses taken and how well he or she has done in mastering that content—is central to his or her success as a college applicant. Review your transcript carefully to assess how your academic performance will appear to colleges: consider the grades you’ve earned and the level of the courses taken (the course numbering system is designed to represent the level; courses at the 500 level are AP/introductory college level). Examine your records on DA Info carefully and note also where your grade average places you in relation to your classmates. While college admissions officers appreciate an improving record, performance all the way through high school will figure in their decisions. Many colleges ask students to indicate a possible major or to apply for specific programs. Obviously, an applicant’s academic profile should complement the program or major he/she applies for. Students should consult with their college advisor in selecting senior year courses.
Standardized Test Scores
While some colleges will play down their emphasis on standardized testing and some don’t require those tests at all, many admissions committees will use SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject test scores to assess applicants’ academic abilities, and to compare students from varied high school backgrounds. Our office finds that testing can play a significant part in the admission decision at most institutions. At most selective institutions, the average score for incoming freshmen hovers in the high 600s or low 700s on all parts of the SAT or 30-32 on the ACT. In the Ivy League and other extremely selective schools, median scores can be in the mid-700s or above 33 on the ACT. While some students are admitted with scores considerably below these averages, highly selective colleges that require testing will usually hope to see testing at or above their averages from most Deerfield students.
Special talents, such as musical or athletic skills, dramatic or artistic abilities, involvement in student publications, community service, or student government are all weighed in the decisions. We find that admission committees favor students who do something well (or even multiple things!), so share all of your skills and experiences in the activity section of your application. Students are encouraged to share their specific talents with colleges in the form of an art, writing or music portfolio if the student’s skills are such that a college professor would be eager to work with such talent. However, aside from a rare applicant who is a top athletic recruit (i.e. will be an impact player on a major DI college team) or musical/artistic prodigy, note that most applicants’ academic records are still weighted more heavily than their extra-curricular accomplishments. Admissions offices are wary of the student who does things just to build a long list of extra-curriculars for college applications, so do whatever it is that you love doing. Get involved in the life of the school at Deerfield not just to build a résumé, but to build your self and the set of skills and interests that may make you a more interesting and productive member of any community.
NCAA Eligibility Center
Students who wish to play a sport in college at the Division I, IA, or II level, must register with the NCAA Clearinghouse by the end of their junior year. You can request your NCAA transcript online. NCAA registration must be filed before students leave for summer vacation. For more important information about NCAA academic requirements, please visit Athletic Recruiting or speak with Mrs. Thiel in the Academic Dean’s office.
The whole question of alumni legacies or influential friends is difficult to gauge. The alumni legacy does count for something; it may tip a candidate into the college when all else seems equal, but it also may only prompt an especially regretful letter of denial. Most colleges will consider you a legacy applicant if your parents completed their undergraduate degree at the institution; you’re encouraged to ask each college how they consider legacy applicants, as some may have clear instructions for receiving the highest consideration from the admissions team. Know that admissions offices are sometimes wary of families perceived as “manufacturing connections,” asking for letters of reference or other special treatment from individuals connected with the college who may not know the candidate well. Most students who are admitted to college have no “connections,” and using “connections” that one really doesn’t have can be a decidedly negative influence on the admission decision. We must also caution you not to rely too heavily on connections; they are obviously no substitute for a strong record and careful evaluation of the right match between student and college.