The October issue of Little Rock Family is our college prep guide. Our cover model, Anne-Marie is a senior at Mount St. Mary (MSM) Academy in Little Rock. We asked her how her own college search was going here. We also didn’t want to miss the opportunity of getting college search tips from MSM’s College Counselor, Emily Coffey. Coffey took the time to answer our questions and share her wisdom on finding the right college — spoiler she suggests more fun and less stress. 

LRF: When should students begin their college search? What are the major steps? 

Most students begin their college search junior year, but if you have a freshman or sophomore who is excited about searching for colleges that is great too! Admission offices operate on a cycle, and from about August through November they are very focused on sharing information about their college with prospective students. This makes the fall an excellent time to start researching colleges. 

When we aren’t in a global pandemic, admission officers will spend upwards of ten weeks traveling to different high schools, college fairs and evening presentations across the country. The good news is that many of these things are happening virtually this fall, which gives you access to many more opportunities than normal. 

Getting Started: College Search Steps 

If you have no idea where to start your search, here’s how to get started:

Step 1: I recommend figuring out the size of college you like first. Research or visit a small, medium and large college to see what academic and social environment is best for you. 

Step 2: Then, start to narrow your focus from there—co-ed or single gender, location, climate, academic profile, religion, athletics, test-optional and more are some things to consider. Some students narrow their search based on a specific major, but since 80% of students change their major at least once in college this isn’t the best criteria to use. 

Step 3: When you begin searching for a college, asking for help from your school or college counselor is a smart place to start. If you don’t have that resource, NACAC, Colleges That Change Lives, and College Board’s Big Futures are some good starting points. If you enjoy hearing directly from admission offices, I recommend reading the admission blogs from Tulane and Georgia Tech.

LRF: How can students prepare for college before it’s time to formally college search? 

Students should select courses that are exciting and the appropriate level of rigor for them. Ideally, students will be challenged, but not overwhelmed, by their classes. In addition to making sure students are earning good grades (remember, colleges see those freshmen grades!), they should find and participate in activities that are meaningful to them. Colleges want to see that you are engaged outside of the classroom because they want you to be engaged on their campus when you enroll. So whether that is a job, athletics, volunteering or youth group find something outside of class to do. 

LRF: How is the pandemic affecting students’ college preparations? What are your top tips if a student must mostly search for a college virtually? 

Searching for a college is an exciting, terrifying and overwhelming experience, and all of those emotions have been heightened due to the pandemic. Currently, it is difficult or impossible to visit many campuses, but almost every college has some sort of virtual visit platform. 

Make sure you attend the virtual or in-person visits colleges are doing this fall. These are the best ways to connect with your admission counselor in a small group setting. Colleges are also hosting virtual information sessions, tours and events that you can sign up for without the help of your school. If a college doesn’t have a virtual event that fits your schedule, reach out to the admissions office to see if you can set up an appointment with your admissions counselor (students, this is your job!). 

Colleges want to meet you where you are and will usually be very accommodating. The most fulfilling virtual events often include a student or professor panel so you can get a sense of academic and campus life.

LRF: Have you noticed any changes with college entrance exams requirements during the pandemic? Do you think this will be a lasting trend? 

Over 60% of higher education institutions have adopted a test-optional or test-blind policy for at least this year due to the pandemic, and I believe this will be a lasting trend. Once colleges see that eliminating testing requirements does not negatively impact their population, there will be no incentive to add them back. 

College entrance exams were originally created to exclude students that colleges didn’t want to admit, and they still exclude students from under-resourced populations. Does it make admissions easier if you can say students with X score get in? Absolutely. But over a thousand colleges were using test-optional policies before the pandemic and there is no reason why they and more institutions cannot continue their innovative approach to admissions to make higher education a more equitable place. Higher education makes changes slowly, but this pandemic was the exact shake-up it needed to get up to speed with the best-practices in 2020. 

LRF: How can parents team with their students during the college search process? 

Talking about college with your student can sometimes be great, but more often than not the conversations become very fraught very quickly. I recommend scheduling a college meeting with your student once every week or so. In the meeting you have a dedicated time to talk about college items, and your student doesn’t feel ambushed. 

The worst time to talk about college? When you have your student trapped in the car or at dinner time. In a trapped location, conversations are rarely productive because your student doesn’t have their college research available, didn’t know the conversation was coming and can’t walk away for a moment if they need a break. 

As a parent, it can be difficult to move from the role of team captain to team player, but now is the time. It is your child who writes the application essay, your child who fills out the application, your child who requests the transcript and your child who emails with the admission office. You still play a vital role in this process, but your student will be driving the interactions with admission offices and you will be supporting them. 

One major way you will likely support your student is through finances. I know talking about money with your child is uncomfortable, but college is a big investment, and your child needs to have a good idea of what their annual budget is. All colleges have a net price calculator on their financial aid website and using that tool is a great way to estimate how much the college might cost for your family. Don’t get scared away by sticker prices (rarely will you receive no financial help), but don’t ignore them either and assume your student will receive a full scholarship. 

LRF: How can students team with their school during the college search process?

School counselors, college counselors and admission counselors are all wonderful partners to have as you search for a college. We all do our best to seek students out, but students will need to take some initiative by answering our emails, reading the material we share and scheduling appointments with us. 

The more organized and communicative you are, the smoother your college search will be. In addition to relying upon the counseling staff at your high school, reach out to the admission counselors at the colleges you like. Many students view the admission counselors at gatekeepers, but they’re more like customer service representatives. Their goal is to answer your questions, connect you to resources and help you find the right fit college. 

LRF: Can you tell us a little bit about your own college search? 

I didn’t really have a college counselor when I was in high school, so my Dad stepped up to the challenge. He helped me focus on what I really wanted from a school (small, liberal arts curriculum, high campus involvement, caring professors, students who weren’t afraid to be themselves, not too close to home), and then encouraged me to look past the name of a college and focus on what they could offer me. 

After carefully crafting my list of colleges and applying to seven schools by November, my parents forced me to apply to one more college in January of my senior year. I was not thrilled that they “forced” me to apply to a school that I didn’t want to attend, but now I am so glad they did. It turns out my parents knew me far better than my teenage-self thought, and I am a proud alumna of the college they recommended. 

Many people will tell you that you’ll just step onto a college campus and “know” that’s where you’re meant to be. So, whether you’re searching virtually or in-person, don’t worry if the heavens don’t part and the sun doesn’t shine down upon you while trumpets blast when you visit “the right” college campus. Chances are, once you figure out what you’re looking for in a college, you’ll find several that feel right to you and many that feel wrong — that is the goal! 

LRF: What top three things do I want students and families to know?

  1. Don’t get overwhelmed by advice. Everyone has something to say about your college list from your cousin who loves College A to your dad who hated attending College B to your grandma who heard people party at College C. Don’t let your voice get drowned out by others. 

  2. Be realistic. Make sure you have a good mix of schools in your application list. You always need one of two foundation schools — places where you will almost certainly get accepted and your family can afford. Once you have your foundation schools selected, you can work on adding a few competitive and very competitive colleges to your list. Look at the academic profiles for each college and make sure your academic accomplishments are comparable. 

  3. Stay organized. Make a calendar of your application and scholarship deadlines, and then create micro-goals leading up to each due date. So, if your Early Action application is due on November 15, you might have the following micro-goals: 

    • 9/15 ask for teacher recommendations
    • 10/1 have a rough draft of my essay
    • 10/15 have my list of activities finalized for the application
    • 11/1 make final changes to my essay

Emily Coffey is the College Counselor at Mount St. Mary Academy. This is her third year in the role, but she’s been connected to the world of higher education since 2014 when she began working in admissions at Hendrix College. Her goal is to help students find the right academic, social and financial fit college. She has a B.A. in Sociology from Hendrix College and a Ed.M. in Higher Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.