The College Search Process

With over 3,000 colleges and universities in the country, the process involved in choosing a college presents an opportunity to explore a broad range of new possibilities. College selection is a very personal decision, one that requires honest self-evaluation—not merely a reliance on the desires and opinions of your family or friends. Before considering specific colleges, you should assess your individual needs, strengths, goals, and values. Once you establish your own priorities, it will be easier to identify the schools that are the best match for you.

Remember: Finding colleges and/or universities suited to your abilities, interests, and goals takes time. Although your college counselor and teachers can assist you in your search, there are no shortcuts or substitutes for your own research and planning.


Evaluating Colleges

How do colleges evaluate applicants?




Take time to consider the following questions, which should assist you in determining what you are looking for in your future college.

Your Values and Goals

  • What values are important to you?
  • What type of person would you like to become?
  • What strength would you most like to develop?

Your Education

  • What aspects of Merion Mercy Academy have you most enjoyed?
  • What are your academic strengths and interests?
  • How do you best learn?
  • What kind of learning environment do you most enjoy?
  • Have any outside circumstances interfered with your ability to perform at your highest level?
  • What degree of academic challenge is right for you? One in which you must work and think hard, or one where you can make good grades without too much stress?
  • Why do you want to go to college?

Your Interests and Activities

  • What activities do you most enjoy? Do you want to pursue these in college?

Your Surroundings

  • How has your environment influenced you?
  • Have you encountered people who think and act differently from you? How have you reacted to them? What did you learn?
  • What kind of surroundings are important to your happiness and productivity?
  • How much structure do you need?

Your Personality and Relationships with Others

  • Describe the students at Merion Mercy Academy. Describe the faculty. How would both groups describe you?
  • How would you feel about going to a college where other students are quite different from you?
  • How do you react to pressure, challenge, or competition?
  • How free do you feel about making your own decisions about college?

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Evaluating Colleges

Spend considerable time researching colleges to help you identify the best options for you. Use the list below to assist you in evaluating colleges.


  • Enrollment—percentage of undergraduate vs. graduate students; freshman class size; individual class size
  • Retention—percentage of freshman class who return for sophomore year; graduation rate after four or more years
  • Diversity—male/female ratio; ethnicity; percentage of commuters/residents; geographic origins; percentage receiving financial aid


  • Location—geographic region; distance from home
  • Setting—urban, suburban, or rural; weather; cultural and entertainment opportunities; integration with town/city


  • College or university; church related; private or public; liberal arts, pre-professional, business, education, engineering, fine arts


  • Academic offerings—majors in your area of interest; breadth and depth of curriculum
  • Required courses—portion of study dedicated to general education; opportunities for student choice
  • Special study programs—internships; study abroad; joint degree programs
  • Courses—sequential or open order; number of courses required for a major

Academic Environment

  • Faculty—percentage of Ph.D.’s advising undergraduates; emphasis on undergraduate teaching
  • Student-Faculty relationships—ratio; accessibility; class size
  • Academic demands—workload; academic competition; degree of intellectual challenge; potential stress level
  • Career preparation—career advising; internships; percentage of alumni who go on to graduate school
  • Technology—wireless access points; computer labs; online access to course information

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How Do Colleges Evaluate Applicants?

Colleges are looking for students who are the best match for their institution, both academically and personally. Given the large number of colleges in the United States, the difficulty of gaining admission to these schools varies with each one. However, there are certain components of the application that are important to virtually all colleges, regardless of their level of selectivity:

  1. High School Transcript
  2. Standardized Test Scores
  3. School Recommendations
  4. Extracurricular Activities
  5. Student Essay
  6. Additional Factors

1. The High School Transcript is the most important factor in the admission process. It tells a college what work the applicant has done day in and day out during her high school years. It is considered to be the greatest predictor of success in college. Colleges consider the entire cumulative grade point average (GPA), as well as trends from the applicant’s freshman to senior year.

If the high school provides it, colleges will also consider the applicant’s rank in class. Due to the rigorous nature of MMA’s curriculum and the school’s philosophy and mission, we do not report class rank. Instead, we provide grade distribution information for each Grade 11 course as of June of your junior year.

Colleges look for students who have challenged themselves by taking advantage of a strong academic program. At MMA, all students are enrolled in a solid college preparatory curriculum, which gives them many excellent options in the college admission process. Advanced level and Advanced Placement courses are clearly a desirable component and can make a student more competitive at the most selective institutions, provided that she can be successful (minimum B/B+ or better) in those very challenging classes.

2. Standardized Tests such as the SAT Reasoning and Subject tests and the ACT attempt to assess a student’s potential for college success. They are never used as the primary criteria for admission. Together with the high school transcript, they help to establish an applicant’s academic suitability for a particular college.

Some colleges are “test-optional”; that is, they do not require an applicant to submit standardized test scores. Colleges with a test-optional policy have varying requirements and procedures for applicants. Refer to for an up-to-date list of test-optional colleges. Be sure to also check directly with the college’s admissions office for more specific information.

3. The School or Counselor’s Recommendation, written by the student’s college counselor, describes the student “behind the grades.” It is comprehensive in nature. It addresses not only the student’s academic strengths, but also who she is as a person and how she has developed her gifts both in and out of the classroom. Except for a very small number of colleges that don’t accept school recommendations, MMA sends a counselor’s recommendation to every college to which a student applies. The majority of colleges also ask for one or even two teacher recommendations.

At Merion Mercy Academy, given our small and personalized atmosphere, we believe that all our students should have the benefit of a teacher recommendation. In the spring, juniors should ask two of their Grade 11 teachers if they would be willing to write a recommendation on their behalf. Colleges strongly prefer to receive recommendations from Grade 11 teachers because of the knowledge that these teachers have of the student’s most recent academic performance.

4. Extracurricular Activities give the college information about a student’s interests, her strengths, and her ability to juggle both academics and personal pursuits. Depth of involvement and an honest commitment to a club, sport, job, or other activity are the kinds of qualities that all colleges desire in an applicant. In evaluating applications each year, colleges want to put together a diverse and active community of people where learning takes place both in and out of the classroom. A lengthy list of activities is much less desirable than a sincere dedication to one or two particular activities.

Students whose involvements and accolades cannot be succinctly explained or simply will not fit within the online application itself should consider creating an activities and/or awards résumé. Naviance offers a tool that enables the student to easily create a professional-looking résumé. A word of caution, though: The résumé should not repeat the same information already listed on the application form; only essential additional information should be included. Showing apparent disregard for the admissions committee’s time by including long descriptions and duplicate information is not advisable.

5. Essay Writing is often the most dreaded part of the college application. Many colleges require at least one essay; some require one or more long and short essays. Essays are used to assess a student’s writing ability, spelling, and vocabulary skills, and to enable admissions personnel to gain a better understanding of the applicant’s personality. Colleges are interested in each applicant’s potential to enrich the incoming freshman class with her unique contributions.

Sample Application Essay Prompts

  • Describe the person whom you would choose as your hero or heroine. Please explain how this person exemplifies the ideals which you value.
  • What are your expectations of a college education? How do you expect to change or grow?
  • Evaluate a significant experience or achievement that has special meaning to you.
  • Discuss an issue of personal, local or national concern and its importance to you.

Essay Writing Tips

  • Vary vocabulary, but do not fill your essay with “thesaurus words.” Write simply in your own voice.
  • Be revealing. Show the admissions committee something important about you that isn’t apparent in the rest of your application.
  • Start and finish strong.
  • Revise your essay as many times as needed until you’re completely satisfied. Don’t expect to write a good essay in one evening.
  • Have someone else read your essay. Ask someone whose honesty you trust to explain your main point (thesis) and to list which of your personal qualities are most evident in what you’ve written.
  • Proofread your essay.
  • Sleep on it, preferably for more than a night or two.
  • Proofread again.

The English and the College Counseling departments at Merion Mercy Academy work together to help students navigate the college essay writing process. English teachers set aside class and homework time during the second semester of junior year and the first semester of senior year for students to work on their essays.

6. There are Additional Factors that can make an applicant more attractive to a particular college. These will vary from college to college and from year to year and may include:

  • Alumni Connections

“Legacy applicants,” as they’re usually called, typically have a mother, father, a grandparent, or less frequently a sibling who attended the same college. Most public institutions give these ties less weight in the admission process than private colleges. The current trend among many highly selective private colleges is to downplay legacy connections in admissions decisions.

  • Athletic Ability

Playing a sport exceptionally well can give a student a boost in the admission process. If you are a talented athlete, you may be approached by coaches as early as your sophomore year, or you might contact coaches yourself to seek out colleges where you might be able to play. But be careful; don’t assume admission is a sure thing just because you are recruited by a coach. Athletic recruits must also satisfy the college’s academic requirements for admission.

  • Ethnicity

Colleges often give students the option of describing themselves as members of an underrepresented group, i.e. American Indian, African-American, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Hispanic American, or Asian American. Looking for diversity, some colleges will actively recruit these types of students and sometimes give them special consideration in the admission process.

  • Artistic Talent

Being a dancer, a musician, or an artist can make an applicant stand out—especially at a liberal arts college. If you apply to an art school or conservatory, you will be competing only against other artists. Some schools may require an audition or a portfolio as part of the application packet.

Be sure to consider your depth of commitment and your personal and professional goals in deciding between an art school/conservatory vs. a college or university with a strong program. Keep in mind that at colleges and universities, in addition to their artistic talents, applicants must also meet the academic criteria for admission.

  • Geography

The majority of private colleges and universities desire a student body which is geographically representative of the nation. To that end, looking beyond the traditional East Coast region might make you a little more attractive as an applicant. This theory may not apply to public universities, which normally have a limited number of spots reserved for out-of-state students.

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There are many ways to research colleges. Usually, your first introduction to a college is through family, friends, a coach, or perhaps contact by the college itself. No matter the initial resource, it is best to research a college through a variety of methods. In this way, a more balanced and complete view of the institution is possible. Listed below is a variety of useful resources:

Computer Searches/Applications

The college search and application process has been transformed over the past few decades by ever-improving technology. Researching colleges, completing applications, and investigating scholarships can all be aided by the use of the internet and other electronic resources.

Students are encouraged to use the Naviance/Family Connection website, which in itself is an excellent resource. Naviance will help you to communicate with your college counselor, and it is the only source containing scattergrams (graphs) providing recent MMA graduates’ college admissions data. To access Naviance/Family Connection, go to the MMA homepage ( and select “College Counseling” from the Quick Links drop-down menu on the right. There is a link to Naviance on our welcome page.


There are many college guidebooks available at local bookstores and online. These books generally fall into two categories: comparative/objective guides and subjective guides. Books that are considered objective include those by Barron’s, Peterson’s, and the College Board. These books claim to present only facts and statistics about a college, but they may omit key information.

Subjective guides may give the researcher a feel for the institution and the type of students who attend it. They usually express the opinion of one or several people, so they should not be used as a replacement for visiting the college and forming one’s own opinions. These guides include those by Fiske and the Princeton Review. Many of these books are in the College Counseling office and are available for student use.

College Admission Publications

Each year MMA’s College Counseling office receives numerous viewbooks and catalogs from colleges all over the country. These are housed in a large filing cabinet for easy student access. These publications provide details on programs, campus facilities, admissions, and financial aid.

College Fairs

National and regional college fairs provide an opportunity for students and parents to meet college representatives from a vast array of institutions. They are an easy way to begin to learn about a variety of post-secondary schools. At these programs, you can pick up literature on colleges and get information on academic programs, admissions criteria, financial aid, and student life. Fairs are held in both the spring of junior year and the fall of senior year. The best time to attend these programs is in the spring of your junior year when you are just beginning the college search process. Announcements of these fairs are made well in advance for you to make plans to attend.

College Representative Visits

Beginning in September and continuing through early December each year, approximately 75 colleges and universities visit MMA. These visits allow seniors the opportunity to personally meet admissions representatives from the colleges they are considering. Usually, these meetings are small, enabling students to not only learn more detailed information about the college, but to also have their individual questions answered. Meeting with a college representative at MMA often helps the senior establish a personal rapport with the person who will be the initial reader of that student’s application.

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An independent, Catholic, all-girls college preparatory high school for grades 9-12
Merion Mercy Academy
511 Montgomery Avenue Merion Station, PA 19066
P (610) 664-6655
F (610) 664-6322
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