College Search Process & Timeline

Beginning the College Search Process

Many students need guidance as they begin to think about themselves as college candidates and try to establish criteria for schools they want to investigate. Here are a few questions parents and students might begin by considering. They are, obviously, directed to 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? 
  • 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)
  • What are the characteristics that you feel are crucial for you in a college? 
  • Which interests do you plan to pursue? 
  • How do you want to grow and change? 
  • What particular facilities are important to you?
  • How much of an academic challenge are you looking for? 
  • 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?

Ninth Grade

Tenth Grade

Junior Year

Senior Year

Gather Information

We recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which gives excellent thumbnail sketches of colleges, and the Princeton Review’s Best 389 Colleges. The College Advising Office offers a collection of college catalogs, admissions-related advice books, videos, and viewbooks.

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.

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,, and Individual college websites provide students with the latest information about their campuses and their admission criteria.

There seems to be no end in sight to the ever-increasing number of applications to colleges, and with that comes the continuing fall of admit rates. The Ivy League and colleges across the spectrum of selectivity are setting new records each year for numbers of applications, from all over the world. It is important to realize that the number of applications a school receives, or how low their admit rate is, does not determine that school’s quality nor its fit for each student. Yet, so often in this process families buckle to the data and allow the ranking or admit rate to determine what schools are “suitable”—thereby neglecting the well-being of the student and the holistic nature of finding a “best fit” college. 

It is imperative that students look beyond the Northeast and beyond the 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! 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 people’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?

When reviewing students’ applications admissions committees consider several factors: academic program and grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular and community-based activities, recommendations, essays and, in some cases, interviews and/or demonstrated interest.

A student’s academic performance—the courses taken and how well they have done in mastering that content—is central to their 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. Examine your records on DA Info carefully and note also where your grade average places you in relation to your classmates. 

Although each college has different guidelines on course selection in high school, the most selective colleges are typically looking for: 

  • 4 years of English 
  • 4 years of math (including calculus for students interested in Engineering or Business)
  • 3-4 years of history/social science/philosophy & religion
  • 3-4 years of lab science, including physics, chemistry, and biology 
  • 3-4 years of one foreign language 
  • and usually some study of visual or performing arts (1 year graded required by the University of California system)

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 they apply for. Students should consult with their college advisor in selecting senior year courses.

While some colleges have been test optional for years and many became test optional with the limited testing available during the pandemic, we still encourage all students to take the ACT and/or SAT because several colleges still require scores. More recently, several colleges have reinstated their testing requirements and students will need scores to be eligible to submit applications to any college requiring a score as part of the application. 

Colleges are looking for students who will add to the community as well as to the classroom so how a student spends time outside of the classroom matters. Special talents, such as musical or athletic skills, community leadership, work with student publications, or dramatic or artistic abilities, are all still 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. However, admissions offices are wary of the student who does things just to build a long list of extracurriculars 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.

Students are encouraged to share their specific talents with colleges in the form of an art 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 musical/artistic prodigy, note that most applicants’ academic records are still weighted more heavily than their extracurricular accomplishments.

If you want to share your talent with the colleges, you should begin to prepare your arts supplement or musical audition pieces over the summer before your senior year, whether you plan to submit a theater clip, a music clip, or slides of your artwork or photography. Art and music instructors at Deerfield are available to help students put together portfolios or audition tapes in the fall of their senior year. If you are applying to a music degree program, please know that an increasing number of music schools are requiring prospective undergraduates to send a pre-screen audition (typically uploaded on a web-based platform) before considering them for live auditions. Check carefully for due dates, which sometimes differ from general application deadlines, and instructions about the desired/required format for your submission.

The whole question of alumni legacies or influential friends is difficult to gauge. The alumni legacy may 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 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 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.

The College Advising Timeline

Ninth Grade

Ninth grade is more about acclimating to Deerfield and establishing a strong foundation for academic and extracurricular success than it is about applying to college. Our advice to students is to use this time wisely, and to make the most of the opportunities available here at Deerfield. Get involved in activities which interest you. Seek out courses that will appropriately stimulate and challenge you—course selection and how you perform in those courses is key to establishing a strong academic profile. Consequently, spend time speaking to your faculty advisor and your parents regarding what you plan on studying. Also, for potential Division I or II athletes, be sure to check with the college advising office if you have questions about NCAA compliance, particularly if you repeated a grade. 

Overall, you don’t need to think too much about the details of the college admission process. Instead work hard, get involved, discover your passions, and have some fun! 

Tenth Year

Tenth-grade students should begin to prepare themselves for the admissions process, not by selecting specific colleges to apply to, but by thorough self-exploration. At this early stage it is helpful to know what one’s personal preferences are, as well as what the college search process ahead will look like. Sophomores should also check with their academic advisors regarding course selection, review NCAA eligibility if they hope to be a recruited athlete, and think about standardized testing (you may want to sign up to take the PSAT in October), as well as attending DA virtual and in-person college fairs. College Advisors will hold an introductory college information session for tenth-graders in January or February after which they will be available for a few weeks for ad-hoc one-on-one counseling to answer any individual questions. During those meetings, tenth-graders can check in with a college advisor on items such as course selection, review of NCAA compliance if they hope to be a recruited athlete, standardized testing, and summer programs. Tenth-graders are also welcome to attend the spring college fair. Although visits to colleges typically begin in earnest with spring break of one’s junior year, some students and their parents may want to begin touring campuses in the summer between their tenth-grade and junior years to get a general feel for what colleges will be a “good fit” based on location, size, academic focus, and selectivity. A comprehensive list of colleges for a student will be created in the winter of their junior year.

Junior Year

We begin our work with juniors with our fall term college advising seminar, and then start individual meetings after seniors have submitted their early applications. Students will be assigned to specific college advisors in midNovember; assignments will be emailed and available on DAinfo. Each college advisor will work with a crosssection of the class.

This is a required meeting for juniors about gearing up for the college admissions/application process, and will meet in late September or early October. Juniors will be divided into small groups and are scheduled for the seminar during one of their free periods. The seminar will: 

  • Explore the various factors that can influence college choice, such as location, size, proximity to a city, relative degrees of competitiveness and selectivity, and the availability of special programs or facilities.
  • Introduce students to Naviance and students will be given a password for this internet database. 
  • Touch on testing, interviews, recommendations, visiting schools, how admission officers make their decisions, and any other concerns that the students in each group may have. 

In this seminar the college advisors will stress the tremendous variety of colleges and the fact that the search must be an individual one. By explaining the process in great detail during the junior year, we hope to make each student feel comfortable with this new responsibility and encourage rational, intelligent decisions during the senior year. We are starting this discussion early in the junior year so that the student has time to digest a significant amount of information and thoroughly complete a sensible exploration of colleges, a task that is very often time-consuming. Begun now and pursued diligently, the process need not compromise a student’s academic performance during the junior or senior year. It is imperative for students to attend the fall term seminar, for we plan to cover important material, after which each student will be required to complete an Information Form that will guide us in the college advising process.

Parents should look for an invitation to a virtual informational session with college advisors in January. Please fill out the Parent Questionnaire prior to the January meeting, or by February 1st at the latest. As we work with your children, get to know them, and create personalized lists of colleges to recommend to each junior for research, it’s invaluable to have parental input.

Late Winter Term and Spring Term Junior Year

By winter, we expect juniors to have completed their Naviance questionnaire and have had at least one meeting, if not more, with their college advisor. After two or three one-on-one meetings, the college advisor will create a list of college suggestions for research: a list of 20-25 institutions that will satisfy some or all of that student’s requirements. We’ll also share our estimations of the student’s chances of admission to particular colleges, using the rough categories “30% or less,” “50-50,” and “70% or greater.” When the list has been compiled, we will discuss our suggestions with the student and send a copy of the list to parents. It is then up to each student and their family to research these schools as fully as possible, attempting to be realistic about the student’s qualifications and needs. For those parents and guardians able to visit Deerfield for Spring Family Weekend (typically in April), there will be a time set aside for us individual family meetings, by appointment. Each year we invite an outside expert to speak to the parents of juniors to offer insights into how a student should approach the task of choosing a college and how the college admission process works.  Advisors are also available at other times during the year for family meetings by appointment.

Although a lot colleges have become test optional as a result of many students not having access to testing during the pandemic, we still encourage all students to prepare for and take the ACT or SAT so they will have scores if needed; there are still colleges that require test scores as a part of the application and college advisors will work with students to determine if and where to submit scores.

Junior year can be a busy one, so we advise juniors to plan their testing carefully with their college advisor and to calculate about an hour of test preparation into their weekly schedule for a month or two leading up to their planned test. Most juniors will take either the ACT or the SAT during the spring and AP exams in the first two weeks of May. The best results tend to come from focused preparation and taking the test in the second half of junior year or in senior fall.  Most students will take the ACT /SAT two times.  There is rarely any benefit to taking these tests more often or beginning to test as a younger student.  Please see our page on Standardized Testing for more information.

We strongly encourage juniors to ask two teachers for college application recommendation letters before school closes for summer.  Colleges generally expect to hear from two academic teachers, ideally in different subject areas: often one math/science teacher and one humanities teacher.  Since colleges want to hear what recent teachers have to say about each applicant, junior year teachers are ideal candidates.  (Many seniors file applications in the month of October for November 1 deadlines, so senior year teachers won’t have had as much quality time to work with a student before writing a recommendation.) Juniors should discuss their options with their college advisor and ask teachers in person before leaving campus. Occasionally a particularly talented artist, musician, or actor will also ask for a supplementary recommendation from a fine/performing arts teacher. Many colleges cap the number of recommendations they will accept, so plan on asking for two letters of support for your application and seek the counsel of your college advisor if you have any questions.

Summer before senior year

Research the colleges on the list from your college advisor and any other institutions that interest you. Use a college guide such as Fiske because it will give you some subjective information not available on websites or in a college’s written materials. Take notes as you go—colleges can begin to sound the same but of course they’re not. Note curriculum requirements, faculty-student ratios, retention rates, housing, strength of the department(s) that most interest you, location, social life, and any other criteria that are important to you—such as athletics, diversity, community service, etc. Log into your Naviance account regularly to research schools and to  update your electronic “list of colleges I’m thinking about.”  Save your notes about each college you research and/or visit; they will be helpful next fall when you need to answer supplemental questions to the Common Application about why you are a good match for a particular college.

As part of your research at each college, be certain to check out course requirements for particular programs in which you may be interested. For example, if you are planning to apply to any of the University of California campuses you must have a full-year fine arts course during high school. If you are applying for engineering, please check for specific math/science high school courses requirements. Fine arts or architecture programs may require portfolios; what format would they prefer? What’s the due date?

We submit transcripts and recommendations for all college applications electronically using Naviance. This means that it is ESSENTIAL that you keep your Naviance account up to date. Please follow the Naviance instructions, including completing the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act section on the Common Application after August 1. During the summer you will be able to keep a list of colleges you are considering in your Naviance account. After you return to school, you and your advisor will narrow this list down to the schools to which you wish to apply and then activate the list, a critical step in being certain that all of your forms get to the right college at the right time. In addition, we’ll be asking your teachers to submit their recommendations electronically to Naviance so that all of your materials reach colleges at the same time.

Select schools from each category of selectivity on your list that you are most interested in visiting. THIS IS CRUCIAL. Determine a visit plan with your parents, and go to those colleges’ websites to make appointments to visit and interview, if possible. (If there is an opportunity to call a college, please do it yourself!  Some colleges will track who does the calling, and they prefer to speak to the applicant, not the parent.) Most large colleges will not offer interviews, but many small liberal arts colleges will. Take advantage of the opportunity to interview. Not only is it a chance to learn more about the college, but it will also give you an opportunity to talk about your academic and extracurricular interests. These interviews are not difficult—most Deerfield students are poised, articulate, and comfortable speaking with adults. You will shine! And interviews demonstrate to the college your sincere interest, which at many colleges today is very important. It is especially important to express your serious interest at 50% and 70% schools. Each year we have several students who were likely to be admitted to schools on their 50% and 70% lists, but were not because they did not visit (especially a school nearby), attend a virtual information session, or did not seem interested in their interview.

Interviews are either evaluative or informational. In an evaluative interview, the interviewer will assess you as a candidate and write a report for your admission file. An informational interview is non-evaluative and primarily for you to learn more about the college, though you still want to be prepared and engaged. To prepare for an interview, research the college’s offerings in your academic area of interest and have a few questions. Be ready to speak about your academic and extracurricular interests. Practice a mock interview with a parent pretending to be the admission officer. After an interview, write a thank you note (hand-written or emailed), mentioning specific things you liked about the college.

You should prepare your arts supplement over the summer, whether you plan to submit theatrical or dance clips, a music recording, or shots of your artwork or photography. Check carefully for due dates, which sometimes differ from application deadlines, and instructions about the desired/required format for your submission.

The college admission process will test your organizational skills. To begin with, organize all the information you have received from colleges into folders, electronic or paper. As you become interested in a college, learn about its application process. Do they accept the Common Application? (Most do.) If so, do they have a supplement? Is the ACT or SAT optional or required? How many teacher recommendations, if any, do they require? Make a spreadsheet listing each college where you plan to apply and all of the relevant requirements and deadlines, or devise your own tracking system.

Your college advisor would like to hear from you during the summer. Please contact us at our Deerfield email addresses and provide us with an update of your visits and thinking about college. We’re eager to give you feedback on college essays as you begin to draft your statements.

We strongly recommend that you fill out the Common Application this summer.

Summer is the time to begin to tackle this project, especially drafting a few essays. Your objective is to tell them something about yourself that they do not know from the rest of your application. That means that you do not want to write a resumé or write about an abstract topic that is hard to grasp in 500 words. Instead, try to find a story about you that illustrates something you want colleges to know. Finding a good topic is the hardest part. Start brainstorming. Send your advisor a couple of your best ideas, and the two of you can decide which idea has the most potential. Write a first draft, and feel free to send it to your advisor for some feedback. We don’t want you to spend hours on it and have us tell you in the fall that we really don’t think it will work. By the time you return to Deerfield we hope that you will have a third or fourth draft that we can look over. You may also want to consult with one of your English teachers or your advisor. Try to limit the number of people who look at your essay; too many editors tend to muddy the waters. The College Board has some helpful information on writing an effective college essay.

Early Decision is a plan whereby a student who knows where they want to go and seems well qualified can apply, usually by November 1 or 15, and receives a decision in December. If admitted, the student must enroll and withdraw any other applications. Early Action is a plan by which a student applies early (usually a November deadline), and receives an admissions decision in December or January.  Early Action is non-binding, so  students may apply to other colleges if admitted EA, but an early offer can lead to a much shorter college list and a sense of relief at having one exciting offer before the spring.  There exist numerous, somewhat confusing variations on this theme including Single Choice Early Action, Restrictive Early Action, Priority Deadlines, Rolling Admissions, and Early Decision II. Our advice: check out any of the early plans with the specific institution involved and discuss the options with your college advisor. A student with a clear first choice and strong qualifications at the time of application may be rewarded with early peace of mind. But, changing student preferences and dramatic academic improvement can make a binding commitment to attend a particular institution both premature and uncomfortable. And many students get swept into the early application frenzy without realistically assessing their prospects for early admission. (Almost half of our early candidates are rejected or deferred to be considered with the Regular Decision applications; only a few of those deferred are later admitted to that college.) Students who wish to file an early application must feel that they are a strong candidate based on their freshman, sophomore, and junior year record and test scores. And remember that many colleges are now rejecting a larger number of early candidates rather than simply deferring them. Try not to get caught up in the early frenzy; give your own situation careful thought. Any student wishing to apply early must let the college office know by October 1, so that we have time to complete the paperwork in support of that application.

Senior Year

As you prepare to return to school in the fall, we will ask you to complete a Fall Information Sheet to share notes on your summer activities and college research and to get an initial sense of your application plans.  We recommend you set up an appointment with your college advisor very soon after your return to campus to share the thinking that has taken place over the summer. In consultation with your advisor and keeping in mind a balanced list of colleges (where you are likely to be admitted to a fair number of them), you will narrow the list of colleges to which you will apply. (In past years the average number has been eight to ten). Throughout the fall, representatives of college admissions offices will visit Deerfield. Most of these sessions will be held in groups, though a few will be individual interviews—some are used as selective measures, most are simply informational. It is the student’s responsibility to see those representatives when they are on campus and to arrange with teachers to be excused from class when necessary.

Weekends (especially the Fall Family Weekend holiday) and the beginning of Thanksgiving vacation can be used for further college visiting if appointments are scheduled well in advance. But students will need to use time in the fall to write their applications, so don’t postpone too many college visits. You and your college advisor should have finalized the list of colleges to which you plan to apply before you leave for Thanksgiving vacation, recognizing that there will be time for small adjustments in December. Consider your Thanksgiving vacation plans carefully. Students will need plenty of free time in which to work on college applications while they’re away from Deerfield, and our long Thanksgiving break provides a wonderful opportunity to work productively.