Wherever you are in the college-planning timeline--whether you're just starting your research, narrowing your school selection, applying for financial aid or sending in your application--you can find information online to ease the process. "Now you can almost go through the entire college planning process from start to finish using the Internet," says Kelly Tanabe, co-founder of SuperCollege.com and author of several related books, including "Get Into Any College." "Practically the only thing you can't do is take the SAT."
Starting Your Research
Standardized tests are one of the first things to look into on the path to college. These comprise a large percent of what colleges use to assess prospective students. (If you know what college you're interested in, it's best to visit their admissions page to see which test is preferred). For the PSAT, SAT I and SAT IIs, check out the College Board, the nonprofit college prep association to which nearly 4,000 schools and organizations belong. And while you can't (yet) take the test online, you can register and get tips and advice, including a question of the day.
Some colleges (and test-takers) prefer the ACT Assessment test, which measures English, math and science skills versus aptitude.
But test scores alone do not a collegian make: You've got to make yourself an appealing candidate, and this U.S. News guide can help you plan your classes and extracurricular activities, among other tips. Once you've figured out what colleges want from you, you can determine what you want from college. The U.S. News college personality quiz may help you determine what sort of academic/social balance you're looking for or what kind of challenge you want, based on some assessment questions.
But if you feel overwhelmed by the possibilities, don't despair. "There are many sites that ask questions and offer possible college selections based on student response," says Lynn Boehne, Director of Admission Services at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Examples include CampusCompare, the College Board's College Matchmaker and the U.S. News comparison database. Try this College Match Quiz from Peterson's to help pare down your options.
Narrowing Down the Options
"Once you reach the point where you've narrowed your choices and want in-depth information, then the individual college Web sites are useful," Boehne says. Look at a fairly complete list on Yahoo!
Traveling to all the campuses on your list can get pretty expensive. Campus Tours is a database site, with links for virtual tours, Web cams, interactive maps and videos, and eCampusTours offers 360° virtual campus tours.
But once you've locked in a few choices, you'll most likely want to see the real thing, off screen and in person. "Online tours are a poor substitute, but better than nothing," Boehne says. "We hope they whet the appetite." Before you visit, check out this quick outline from eCampusTours about how to prepare, what to bring, what to ask and more.
If you really can't go, Tanabe says there are other options beyond the virtual tour. "If you're going to visit a college virtually, you need to make the effort to find people who can answer your questions. Some colleges offer online chats so you can ask questions of admissions officers and students. You can get a sense of campus life by visiting Web sites of student organizations and even individual students--e-mail them. You can make an informed decision without leaving the comfort of your home."
Almost all schools offer online applications, and most actually prefer this method to the traditional paper application. Visit the college's Web site and check out the admissions page for more specific details.
One of the biggest question marks about college is, "How will I ever pay for this?" As the cost of college goes up, financial aid is more vital than ever. The most important financial aid document is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is used to assess need for federal student financial aid, which includes grants, loans and work-study. Plus, the state will often use it to assess need for non-federal aid. Sites like FinAid can help you understand the forms, calculate need and maximize your eligibility.
The Internet has made college planning a lot easier, but the next months are still filled with big decisions and a lot of hard work. But remember, it will pay off when you end up at the college of your dreams. Good luck!