College Search

Beginning the College Search Process

©COONEY-120119-250Many juniors 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?
  • 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?
  • 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 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?
  • 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

Cooney-2012-10-11-4Where to Begin to Gather Information

We recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which gives excellent thumbnail sketches of colleges, and the Princeton Review’s Best 376 CollegesThe College Advising Office offers a collection of college catalogues, videos, and viewbooks. Of course, the Internet is brimming with information. A few sites we have found useful for students are, and 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 a password/log-on to access the Deerfield Naviance data in February. Naviance helps students keep track of their prospective colleges, active applications, and gives them information about the likelihood of their 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.


Most of our students go on to independent colleges and universities. The biggest hurdle that many of them face is their desire to apply to the same short list of colleges in which most 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 benefited from the Ivy overflow and have also become highly, highly selective. It is imperative that students look beyond the Northeast and beyond the standard list in order to consider the full range of colleges available to them. Pay careful attention to two pieces of information as you consider a particular college: What percentage of the students who applied were admitted last year? And what are the average SAT scores of those admitted and how do they compare with yours.


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.

What are the Colleges Looking For?


The Academic Program and Record

For the majority of our students’ academic performance—the courses a student has taken and how well he or she has done in mastering their content—is central to his or her success as an applicant. In June we will send you a copy of your child’s transcript. Examine it carefully and note particularly where your child’s average places him or her in relation to his or her 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 match 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, few admission directors will deny that the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject test scores are among the best predictors of academic success on a collegiate level. We find that they 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 600’s on all parts of the SAT or 29-30 on the ACT. In the Ivy League and other highly selective schools, median scores are in the 700’s or above 30 on the ACT. While some students are admitted with scores considerably below these averages, scores in the low 600’s or below 29 may be regarded as troublesome to admission committees at many highly selective schools.

Non-Academic Factors

Special talents, such as musical or athletic skills, managerial accomplishments, work with publications, or dramatic or artistic abilities, are all still weighed in the decisions. We find that admission committees favor a student who does something well. While many college freshmen are well-rounded, admissions offices are wary of the student who does things just to build a long list of extracurriculars for college applications. 

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 onlineNCAA registration must be filed before students leave for summer vacation. For more important information about NCAA academic requirements, please visit Athletic Recruiting. 


The whole question of alumni legacies or influential friends is difficult to gauge, but our general recommendation to students is not to be too proud to take advantage of “connections.” 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. Parents and students are cautioned, however, not to “manufacture connections,” asking for letters of reference from individuals who do not know the candidate well. Many 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.