By Vicky Hallett

Coming up with a short list of schools begins with figuring out what you're really looking for

You don't need to be a math whiz to solve this problem: Who has better odds of gaining acceptance at the college that's the best match, the high school senior who applies to 25 schools indiscriminately or the one who applies to a carefully whittled-down list of seven?

Safety in numbers doesn't apply to getting into college, no matter how many applications you think you can churn out with the help of your good pal, the Common App. Getting that fat envelope from the school of your dreams requires figuring out exactly which school that is, and that takes introspection and research, not extra supplemental essays.

Just to keep a sense of perspective (in case you're friends with that first kid), according to the Higher Education Research Institute's most recent survey of freshmen, only 3.3 percent of students applied to 11 or more schools.

It starts with you. Maybe you're feeling in pretty good shape right now because you're interested in only two colleges, that nearby state school and the one your older brother attends. Nice try: "Always start with you, not with the colleges," advises John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. Before you pore over information about class sizes, majors, and male-to-female ratios, consider a few questions. What are your values? What's your learning style? Which classes do you enjoy? What makes you happy? What are your goals?

Keith Berman, president of Options for College, a counseling and consulting firm in New York, calls this the "collection phase." He recommends making an activity list, journaling to put words to feelings you've never expressed, and talking -- to your guidance counselor, favorite teacher, or parents -- about your interests and skills. You should also write a résumé.

One student who walked into Boshoven's office announced that she was planning to study prelaw or premed in college. "So I said, 'You must like science.' She said no. Then I said, 'Do you like to read a lot?' and again she said no. She had just been telling me what her parents had always told her," he recounts.

Survey the landscape. Now that you know who you are, it's time to figure out what's up with all of these colleges.

Marty O'Connell, executive director of the nonprofit group Colleges That Change Lives, wants you to schedule an extra hour of homework a week, starting in your junior year, to look over websites and take virtual tours to get a sense of different kinds of schools. "Every student agrees on this part of the college search process -- they don't have enough time to do it on top of everything else," she explains. So set up these sessions, and you'll have enough time for detours -- away from the Ivy League, out of your state, and certainly to at least a few places you'd never heard of before you got going.

Many high schools bring in admissions officers from colleges, and while you shouldn't skip class every time one visits, these folks are likely to provide answers you couldn't get from a website -- plus, they're probably the ones who will eventually read your application. Or watch for local college fairs, like those of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (www.nacacnet.org) and Colleges That Change Lives (www.ctcl.org).

What you're looking for will depend on your interests, of course, but your quest should start with academics (that is, after all, the point of attending college). You can browse course catalogs, peek at faculty Web pages to find out what they're researching, and look into study abroad.

Then there are the quality-of-life issues. O'Connell calls this the "ultimate Frisbee search." The idea is that certain passions are enough to drive your decisions. It may be that you desperately want to join a Bhangra dance troupe or can't imagine attending a school more than a three-hour trip from home. Another popular parameter: temperature! "If you know you don't like cold weather, don't go to Rochester," notes Jayne Fonash, guidance director at the Academy of Science in Sterling, Va.

Sizing up schools. You've probably also heard people talk a lot about whether you want a "big" or "small" school. There's truth in the general stereotypes of each: Big schools tend to have more resources and opportunities but often have more red tape and classes taught by graduate students, while small schools tend to be closer knit, with more of an undergrad focus, but may have limited academic and social opportunities.

But every school is different. "Sometimes [students are] afraid it won't be exciting if it's under 2,000 students, but then they realize there's a lot more going on than they expected," O'Connell says. Conversely, says Berman, a big school doesn't seem that way if it's well run, and many honors programs or colleges within larger schools provide an intimate environment. So don't blacklist a school solely on the numbers.

Work backward from your goal, suggests David Montesano, owner of College Match, a college coaching and placement service. Want to be an engineer or a surgeon? "Find ones you can talk to, and find out which schools they attended," he says. "You may hear the same names over and over again."

Hello, campus. Poking around from home is helpful, but nothing beats visiting campuses and trying them on for size. "You'll know from that very first moment when you step out of the car," promises Brian Smith, director of college guidance at Memphis University School, a college-prep school in Tennessee. Just envisioning yourself hanging out in that student center or studying in that library can help you determine if a school is worthy of the application fee. Sit in on classes, grab a meal at the dining hall, or spend the night in a dorm to get a feel for what your life could be like for the next four years.

The first day of finals will feel different from the first day after spring break, and a sunny afternoon is sure to make a better impression than a rainy one. But don't feel you need to disregard your gut. "Things can go bad on any day, but they're more likely to happen in a bad place," Berman says.

The best resource of all? The students. "[Visitors] don't want to do it the first few times, but I tell them they need to go up to students and ask what they like about their school. What would they improve? That's gold," Montesano says.

And pull out that journal again to jot down notes about your experiences, Montesano says. If you're on a 15-schools-in-four-days tour, it can be easy to confuse what you saw where.

Short list. Your final assignment: Balance your research with a reality check. Where would you like to go that will accept you? Fonash says there's no magic formula, but a good guideline is to pick one or two "reach" or long-shot schools, three in the middle range, and two sure bets. Those in the last category are sometimes called "safety schools" but, "If you can't fathom going there, it's not a viable option," Smith says.

On the other side, while applying to just MIT , Yale , Princeton , and Stanford is probably not a smart strategy, don't be afraid to stretch a little. Berman was astounded when a student told him where she was applying and never mentioned Columbia, even though it seemed to match her goals exactly. "I called her parents, and they said, 'She can't get into Columbia .' I told them, 'It's hard to get into Columbia because they're accepting people like your daughter.' The perfect program was staring them in the face, and she wasn't going to apply at all."

And if you feel you can't find the perfect program? It's time to prioritize. "The idea that there's one magical fit for every student is a fairy tale," Fonash says. "There are several schools where you can be happy."

In the end, the most important factor is making these decisions for yourself. Friends may mock schools they've never heard of, and parents may advocate for places they wish they'd attended, but it's your life and your education, and, ultimately, you have to feel comfortable with your choices.

The payoff. It's not naptime yet. There's still the pesky part of actually applying. But the work you've already done is going to make it feel a whole lot easier (and cheaper, since you'll have fewer application fees to dole out). In essays, you can note the discussion with the economics professor on your visit, the fascinating op-ed you saw in the school's daily paper, or the powerful reaction you had to the library mural. And during interviews, when asked why you're applying, "you'll give an answer with substance to it other than, 'My friends are going here, and the lawn is gorgeous,' " Fonash says.

Those substantial details indicate "demonstrated interest," which is something admissions officers say boosts a student's chances of acceptance. And that boost will definitely come in handy when senior spring rolls around.

Available on Amazon.com:

Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It

Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College

 

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How to Narrow Your College Choices - Going to College