College Bound: A Few Clicks Away

From researching and developing your preliminary college list to completing your applications and preparing for your first year at college, the Web can help you in nearly every aspect of the college search (except for actually making your decisions, that is). Surfing the Web is extremely resourceful, but if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, it can eat up time quickly. 

The On-Ramp
One of the best ways to maximize your time online is the savvy use of search engines (i.e. Google, Yahoo​). When typing in "college admission" thousands of sites will appear in seconds, so, it's best to have a good idea of what you're looking for, such as: lists of college home pages, financial aid assistance, applying online, or tips on writing essays. 

​​​Beginning Your College Journey
A good place to start your journey is with Web sites that provide databases of colleges. Depending on the site, you can type in the geographical area, size, setting, major(s) and other characteristics that interest you. You'll then see a list of colleges that match your preferences. These "comparative" sites are a great way to generate a long list of colleges to research further. You might find colleges you haven't even thought of. The Department of Education has compiled one of the most comprehensive databases with its College Navigator site. 
 
As with all information online (or elsewhere, for that matter), consider the source. Some comparative sites only include the colleges that pay for the privilege of being listed, so you could miss some good options if you rely on only one site. You'll find that some comparative sites have more information than others about individual colleges. Also, a comparative site may not have the most up-to-date information on deadlines and other time-sensitive material. For that, it's best to check the colleges' Web sites directly. 

Researching Colleges: Moving on Down the Road
Once you have a preliminary list of colleges that interests you, online resources can be helpful in researching each college further. The primary ways to research colleges online are through the individual college Web sites and through email contact. 

Most comparative sites also provide links to college home pages. There are also simple lists of college home pages, categorized alphabetically or geographically.

Or just type a college's name into a search engine. 

The Web sites of individual colleges are often invaluable sources of in-depth information. You can find all the basics, selectivity, size, majors, setting, etc., in addition to some clues as to what everyday life on campus is like. 

Kenneth E. Hartman, author of the Internet Guide for College-Bound Students, writes that you can find two types of information about colleges, official and unofficial. Official information is what you can learn from the admission office, guidebooks and the college catalog. Unofficial information is the kind you read in the student newspaper, find out from contacting current students and browsing student-made Web pages. And college Web sites are the easiest way to gather unofficial information, short of visiting the college in person. 

To make the most of a college's Web site, try these strategies. 
  • Look at the home pages of individual faculty members in majors that interest you, some post detailed syllabuses of their classes, descriptions of their research interests, and email addresses. If you have a specific question or two about a major, try sending a faculty member a short, polite email introducing yourself and asking your questions (don't ask anything you can find out in the college catalog, though). 
  • Read the pages for prospective students thoroughly. They will give you basic information about the college, as well as some sense of the mission and priorities of the college. 
  • Visit the home pages of student organizations, you can check out the schedule for the drama club or see what resolutions the student senate passed. 
  • Look for the home pages put up by current students at the college. If students list their email addresses, send short email messages to a few of them, asking questions about their college experiences. But don't take a few complaints on one student's home page as gospel; try to look at a good sampling of student pages. 
  • Find the alumni association pages, what are alumni of the college doing now? What is the college doing for its alumni? 
The Online Application: Avoid the Bumps in the Road
The option of applying to colleges online is very common. Several colleges even require online applications. Computer-minded students will probably feel that applying online is easier and even more enjoyable than the traditional application. (Check out the Web-enabled Common Application, which is accepted by many colleges across the country).
 
Whether or not you apply online has no bearing on the college's admission decision. Admission officers are committed to assessing each application on its content, not how it was delivered. 

Two problems can arise when students apply online, but you can avoid them. First, students who use email and other interactive Internet options for casual correspondence may have a tendency to write their online applications in their usual “email language.” But online applications should be just as literate and error-free as their traditional counterparts. That means no Internet abbreviations or emoticons, and a well-proofread essay. This advice seems obvious, but some admission officers have noticed that the quality of some online applications have been questionable. You should also remember to seek the advice of your counselor before clicking "send." The swift tempo of applying online should not distract you from navigating a checklist of application deadlines and necessary components with your counselor.

The second problem stems from the relative ease of applying online: submitting too many applications. No matter how easy it may be to push a button and send yet another application, submitting a large number of applications often makes your final decision more difficult. It's better to spend some time researching colleges and narrowing your list rather than applying to a bunch of colleges you don't know much about. 

Social Networking and College Admission
Do you have a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or MySpace account? If not, can you name a few of your friends or classmates who do? Now more than ever, students are sharing their lives and personal experiences on social networking sites. Depending on the college and area, over 80 percent` of students have a Facebook account according to an article featured on campustechnology.com

These sites help you keep in touch with friends and allow you to meet new people. Many students spend hours each day updating their profiles, messaging their friends and clicking through photo albums. It’s harmless fun, right? Now, how would you feel if your teachers got a glimpse of your account? Or a college admission officer?

“Well, I would be a little angry because there are things in my profile that I don’t want them to see,” said Aubrey Fait, a freshman at Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods College (IN). “There is some information that I want to keep private between my friends and I, so I would prefer if my parents and college faculty not look at my Facebook profile.”

Other students don’t feel that what they do in their free time influences their schoolwork, so it shouldn’t matter what information they have online. They may be right; you can be a great student, regardless of what you do outside of school. When the embarrassing details of your social life are online for anyone to look up, though, you might want to re-consider what you post.

You might not like it, but you should be aware that adults from your high school, colleges you apply to, your family and even law enforcement might be looking at your pages.

Warning Signs
Not all of the information you find online is accurate. Anyone can put up a Web site for minimal cost and say anything they want. That means you need to consider the source of anything you find on the Web. Before depending on information from a Web site, ask yourself the following questions: 
  • Where is the information coming from? That is, who is sponsoring the site? 
  • What motives might the person or organization behind the site have for publishing certain information? For example, corporations want to sell their products, and activist organizations want to draw readers to their cause. There is plenty of good information on corporate and activist sites, of course, but be aware that you might be getting only one side of the story
  • Can you find similar information elsewhere, on unrelated sites? 
  • Are opinions backed up with facts or references to other publications?
  • Finally, if you have any questions about college admission information you find on the Internet, ask your  college counselor. 
Don't Leave the Dirt Roads Behind
The Web can be very useful in the college search, but sometimes the traditional avenues are just as valuable. No matter how detailed a Web site is, it can't take the place of attending a fair, visiting a campus or talking to people who know the college first-hand. The Web is not nearly as helpful when you need to make a big decision about where to apply or to attend. For that, you need to consult your own goals, feelings and thoughts, and your best help may be having a conversation with your family or your college counselor.

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