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SELECTING A COLLEGE 


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Students often have preconceived notions about the college or university they want to attend. Maybe it's the college that a parent or friend attended; perhaps it's a school's athletic team or locale.

These are strong influences and need not be ignored. On the other hand, early impressions might make a student believe incorrectly that a college is perfect for him/her. Understanding that there is no perfect college will make the application process more exciting. The student who narrows her/his sights to only one college may spend too much time worrying about gaining admission to that particular school, and prevent him/her from considering other colleges and universities.

There are over 3,500 colleges and universities in the United States. Like the students who attend them, they are all different. They are private and public, large and small, located in small towns and large cities. Some are affiliated with a religious organization, others are not. Some offer specialized or technical programs, while others offer a sound education in the liberal arts.

Students must examine their own needs in determining the importance of all factors that go into this decision. This decision should not be based on a short visit, casual comment or a great picture in a viewbook. The student who researches, compares and analyzes makes the best decision in the end.

Working with their counselors, students usually start the process using a computerized search. They can enter a desired major, location, school size, athletic program, etc. Vegetarian meal plans, cars on campus, or the availability of specific religious services can be included as well. Characteristics are added until the computer has narrowed down the number of colleges qualifying to a manageable number. The computer then provides names, addresses, zip codes and telephone numbers so students can contact the college directly. Also available in every guidance office are college guidebooks such as School Guide, College Guide, Profiles of American Colleges, Lovejoy's, Barron's and Peterson's. Although these guides provide much more detailed information about colleges than the computer and they often list colleges by specific major, it is cumbersome to cross-reference two items such as athletics and majors. Using the two - computer and guidebook - in conjunction will provide a great deal of information.

All this information is still not a substitute for a college catalog. After the student narrows her/his search to a reasonable number of colleges, then it is time to acquire a catalog, usually available on the college's Web site in pdf form or by calling the admissions office. The catalog will list all admissions requirements as well as graduation requirements. It lists all courses taught and their teaching staff. The catalog provides a "philosophy" of the school in addition to other policies and requirements. Students should read the sections of the catalog that pertain to them. Specifically they should inquire how much math, science and foreign language are required, both for acceptance and graduation requirements. Many colleges produce a thin, glossy viewbook full of wonderful pictures of sunny days and smiling students. Do not confuse this viewbook with a catalog. A viewbook is merely a public relations aid that, although helpful, is not a substitute for the catalog.

At this point anyone can become overwhelmed. There is so much information to read and understand, that it is usually helpful for students to make a chart, listing all the things they and their parents find important, then identify how each college still being considered meets these expectations. Guidance counselors can be very helpful in providing a sample checklist or in helping generate a specific checklist. Remember, no college is perfect, and students will have to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of each institution as it meets their individual needs.

There are other resources students and parents can use in evaluating colleges. Following is a description of some of them and their limitations:

Virtual tours. More and more colleges are offering virtual tours, either on their Web sites or via CD. The virtual tour is helpful to "see" a college that is far from home, but does not replace a visit. While the student can visit such campus highlights as the student center, residence halls, library or sports complex, the brevity of the virtual tour, usually five to 15 minutes, precludes any in-depth understanding of the school.

Money Magazine's "Best Buys." Each year Money Magazine produces its list of the "Best Buys in Education." No one from Money Magazine visits any schools in preparing this annual list. Rather, it is done mathematically by dividing the money spent on "instruction" by the number of students enrolled. Therefore, publicly financed rural schools do very well versus private urban schools where costs are significantly higher. Although class size, faculty morale, dedication to teaching and faculty accessibility are all important factors, they are not considered in determining the "Best Buys."

U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges." Again without visiting colleges, the magazine "ranks" schools. Their system uses current university presidents and deans who volunteer their opinions of their own and other institutions. These opinions are not based solely on facts, and again most university presidents have not set foot on the campuses they are rating. A high priority is placed on instructional expenses with little emphasis on class size or instructor accessibility.

Internet. There are a number of programs that will do a college search on the Internet. The number of variables in your search will differ from site to site. As a starting point, you can try www.schoolguides.com or www.petersons.com or www. collegenet.com.

Evaluating colleges and then choosing the one you will be attending is both a challenge - and an exciting opportunity.

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