Looking and Paying for Colleges

Looking ahead, summer is the time to get serious about college admissions, so I want to give you some important information about the various aspects of what it takes to manage what can seem to be a complex and confusing process.

Don’t feel bombarded by all of this, though. Granted, things can seem overwhelming, but the last thing I want you to feel is anxiety. Take it seriously but–please–don’t let it drive you to distraction, and, of course, be sure to allow plenty of time to enjoy your summer.

The purpose of my article today is to give you some important general information about resources that can help you throughout your college process.

So, here are a few things you should do:

– Invest in a college guidebook.

You won’t get the full flavor of most colleges from their Web sites. While the Web provides a valuable source of such information as application requirements, financial aid options, academic programs, etc., most colleges quickly start to sound a lot alike on the Web. So, try to get one of these:

The Princeton Review’s Best 377 Colleges

The Fiske Guide to Colleges, 2014

The Insider’s Guide to Colleges, 2014

Unlike those giant, Manhattan-phone-book-sized guides that provide information on several thousand colleges, the books above cover only several hundred, but the information is far more revealing than those dry, statistical-laden capsules in the mega-tomes. Many colleges on your list (but probably not all) will be included in these anecdotal guides, regardless of which book you get.

It’s not necessary to have a brand-new version of any of these, as long as you realize that some specifics (such as test requirements, deadlines, tuition) may have changed. I wouldn’t even trust new guidebooks for that sort of info, since publishing deadlines are set so far in advance. Web sites are far more reliable. You can get used copies of older versions really cheaply on Amazon. You can also get most (but not all) of the information that’s in the Princeton Review book for free by going to their Web site. You will find the same student opinions and other subjective information there that you’ll get in the guidebook. In any case, don’t take the student opinions there as gospel truth, but they will help you get a general sense of whether a college might be a good fit for you … or not.

Check out FastWeb for scholarship ideas.

Here’s the link:  www.fastweb.com

This is a no-cost way to access information about private scholarships for which you may be eligible. The online questionnaire takes about 10 or 15 minutes to complete. You’ll find that the majority of resulting scholarships tend to be in the $500 to $1,000 range, though there are some big ones on the list, too. Needless to say, the greater the award, the more competition you’ll face. Keep in mind, however, that in most cases, the best financial aid comes from colleges themselves in the form of need-based or merit-based grants.

Once you fill out the FastWeb questionnaire, you will receive periodic email updates about new scholarships and reminders about upcoming deadlines. FastWeb is free and completely legitimate, so fill out that questionnaire now!

Look for merit-aid colleges.

The Web site www.meritaid.com is another place to look for money, particularly for lists of colleges where you are likely to qualify for merit aid. Merit aid is money that comes right from the colleges and is usually based on academic strength and typically not tied to financial need. If you don’t have official SAT scores yet, I suggest that you hold off on using these scholarship-search sites until you do.

Use the College Board Matchmaker at http://apps.collegeboard.com/search/adv_typeofschool.jsp to find colleges that match your preferences for size, location, majors, extracurriculars, etc. Follow up on unfamiliar colleges that this search engine generates by reading their profiles, visiting their Web sites, and checking them out in one of the anecdotal guides named above. The College Board site also provides a very helpful roundup of info about each college–everything from size to majors offered to cost, average test scores, etc., all in one handy place. It can take hours to find that kind of stuff on individual college Web sites.

Check out College Confidential’s SuperMatch.

Go to: http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_search/ It allows you to state the strength of you preference and doesn’t rule out every college that doesn’t meet it. For instance, if you say that you want an urban campus, but there’s a rural one that meets every single one of your other preferences, SuperMatch won’t automatically delete that college from your “Results” list, but it will tell you that it’s not a 100% match, and why.

This can be very helpful since most of us don’t really know what we truly want when we’re 17. The other plus of SuperMatch is that it allows you to search in some “subjective” categories. For instance, on SuperMatch—unlike on the College Board Matchmaker—you can look for party schools or non-party schools, for liberal campuses, great college towns, and other categories.

Check out the College Confidential discussion forum for general admissions information as well as for threads that are dedicated to specific colleges. Go to http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/. As with all reader-generated content, don’t expect everything to be 100 percent accurate!

Also, don’t be shy about talking to anyone you respect about their college knowledge. Chat with current seniors, favorite teachers, parents of your friends, etc. to see if they might put schools on your radar screen that weren’t there before. The more open-minded you can be, the better your chances of finding a great fit become.

All of the above should give you plenty to do. As I mentioned, be diligent, be organized, don’t angst, and try to have some fun!