By Dr. Raymond J. Huntington

Have a candid conversation with a real expert.

Helping students prepare for and choose the right college or university is one of the most important roles for today's school counselors. Most receive a great deal of information about various schools every week, and most have extensive experience in guiding students to schools that are a good match for their interests and abilities. They're also familiar with the key factors - such as GPAs, minimal SAT and ACT scores, course loads and extracurricular experiences - that colleges and universities consider in their choices of students. That's why it's important to have a candid conversation with your counselor. Talk about your abilities and your dreams, and don't be surprised if you end up with a list of possibilities that seem perfectly suited to you.

Explore Web sites and View Books.

Today's higher education marketplace is extremely competitive, and many colleges and universities go to great lengths to promote their unique attributes and advantages. Which is why most college and university Web sites include many interactive features to give students an exciting virtual experience. On a typical site, you should be able to learn about the school's various majors, sports teams, clubs, fraternities and special activities, as well as its history and philosophy about education. Most sites also offer virtual tours of the campus and the communities in which they're located. Many also appeal to today's tech-savvy college applicants with blogs, Podcasts, and interactive links that enable you to meet and converse with current students. While there's no substitute for an on-campus visit, these virtual experiences can provide an engaging introduction to campus life.

Tap into other online resources.

The Web is loaded with resources that can help you prepare for and find the right college. One of the most effective is the Web site for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), located at www.nacacnet.org. The site for the College Board (www.collegeboard.org), which created the SAT, is also excellent. It includes a college search engine, a "College MatchMaker" link, and plenty of information on applying to and paying for college.

Check out ranking guides.

Most school libraries have magazines and books that spotlight institutional offerings and rank colleges and universities according to several factors. These should include The Fiske Guide to Colleges, which has very detailed descriptions and observations about individual schools, and the U.S. News & World Report Ultimate College Guide, which features detailed information on more than 1,400 institutions along with information about affordability, accessibility and rankings based on several factors. The Fiske Guide also includes candid tips from current students, self-tests that can help you find the right college match, and Fiske's own rankings on academics and the quality of student life.

Take a trip.

One of the very best ways to determine if a college is right for you is to travel there and spend a bit of time on campus. Take a tour. Meet other students. Attend some athletic events. Recognizing the importance of this activity, most colleges and universities have a well-established program featuring students as tour guides who can discuss everything from a school's academic program to its sports teams to various aspects of student life. Many students wait until summer to take these tours, since that's when they have the most travel time, but it's a good idea to visit during the school year when classes are in session and when there are plenty of other students to meet.

Keep a record of your travels.

If you're like most students, you'll be processing a lot of information as you go through these steps. That's why it's a good idea to bookmark all of the Web sites for the institutions and resources that you find interesting, and keep a file with copies of information. A three-ring binder with sleeves for different categories of information - such as financial aid forms and back-up materials, checklists for the admissions requirements of your top schools, and a calendar for scheduling campus visits - is ideal. You can consider this as a planning tool, and as a scrapbook for one of the most exciting and important journeys of your life.


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