Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo

Taking some of the guesswork out of choosing a college

When Jennifer Drew was deciding where to attend college, one issue was uppermost in her mind: location, location, location.

"I always knew I wanted to come to Boston," says Ms. Drew, who is now tackling her freshman year at Boston University.

Bottom-line concerns vary widely. But a growing number of students share a decidedly consumer approach to college-hunting. With a college education edging close to $30,000 per year in many cases, more students and their parents are poking their heads into dorm rooms, prodding admissions officers for more information, visiting classes, and putting an ear to the college street for the lowdown on student life.

Not only does this strategy ensure a well-informed decision, says Ebba Hierta, director of College Advisors, an education consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., but it benefits students by giving them added responsibility. "The biggest thing that happens is self-esteem and confidence for these kids," she says.

Ideally, Ms. Hierta notes, the process should begin in ninth grade, something that helps the students become more competitive, opens more doors of opportunity, and can alleviate stresses.

Matching learning styles

Before beginning to research specific schools, students should answer preliminary questions about their needs and wants, many experts say. Learning style, extracurricular activities, value systems, their best subjects are all factors to weigh against a school's size, location, and student profile. Other things to consider are graduation rates, library facilities, and athletic offerings.

Individual learning styles should play a large role in college selection, says Hierta, noting that at least half her clients have changed their school preferences after exploring their learning styles. She says that one of her clients never considered the University of Michigan; she wanted a smaller, more interactive setting. But as an assertive student, she found she did not need the smaller school, and the state school offered an honors program with smaller, more interactive classes.

Another issue, of course, is cost, but experts warn families against ruling out possibilities based on finances. "You can see it with parents whose students are the oldest in the family," says John Albright, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Georgia in Athens. "It's a sticker shock that you go through. Don't let that knock you down."

Many schools admit students on a need-blind basis, meaning they will offer funding to any needy student who is accepted. Educational consultants and guidance counselors can help families find out more about available grants and loans.

Finding resources

Once students have an idea of what they want, there are numerous resources to narrow the search to a handful of schools.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard University's dean of admissions, says students should target certain schools and also seek out knowledgeable people who know them well for advice on schools they might have overlooked.

Another option is hiring an educational consultant. Hierta's firm helps its clients by developing a working rsum with the student, as well as locating the right colleges, making their clients more marketable, and finding a way to finance a post-secondary education. But not all consulting agencies offer the same services.

Fitzsimmons recommends reading several college guides. Many high schools have their own Web page with access to college and university home pages. Other Internet sites have search modes that find schools matching individual specifications. Once students have a reasonable list of schools, says Fitzsimmons, they should get in touch with them and start the communication process.

Paying a visit

Freshman Jennifer Elkin became interested in BU through her friends. After she visited, it clinched her decision.

"They've developed an image of what the college should feel like, what the college should look like, but they won't know it until the visit," Albright says.

When one of Hierta's clients visited two Chicago area schools, she gained insight into what she was looking for. A suburban university on the lake was appealing. But then she visited the University of Chicago and liked its urban setting and emphasis on community outreach. Hierta's client realized she wanted community service to be a visible part of student life.

Fitzsimmons recommends talking to many students during a stay. Formal or informal interviews are also a good source of information. And if you are a minority or have a special need, a visit is highly recommended. "It's like buying a shoe. You have to see if it fits," Albright says. "There's got to be a comfort level and a support system. This goes for oboe players, people with learning disabilities, and minorities."

"Students need to constantly ask what's best for them," says Biemeret. The college resource center in her school has no college rankings, holding to the philosophy that the best school for a student is the school that fits.

The office also promotes the process as a family decision and says this might be the last opportunity for a family adventure while the student is still at home.

Research Guides

U.S. News and World Report's "1997 America's Best Colleges" $5.95

Ranks "bests" nationally, regionally, by types of study, and by major. It also has pointers on getting ready for, going to, and paying for college. Its review of what to ask when visiting or choosing a school is useful. The directory includes 1,400 schools.

Time/The Princeton Review, "The Best College For You and How To Get In" $5.95

Offers a comprehensive financial-aid section and several articles addressing the needs of minorities, women, and the learning disabled. The directory lists more than 1,200 schools.

Peterson's Four-Year Colleges, Peterson's, $24.95

Comprehensive information on nearly 1,000 schools and statistical information on more than 2,000 schools - including process, admissions, requirements, student body, and financial aid. The in-depth reviews sometimes sounded as if they were directly from school marketing agents.

The Fiske Guide to Colleges, by Edward B. Fiske, Times Books, $19.

Reviews are compiled from both administration and students, giving a clearer picture of what the institution is like. It is a more manageable handbook, but it carries information on only 300 colleges.

Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, Barron's Educational Series Inc., $23.95.

Entries reflect basic statistical information on more than 1,600 colleges and universities in the US, Canada, and Mexico as well as American universities in other countries.

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