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 Search
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.
Remember, it's never too early to start thinking about college. This College Preparation Checklist from the U.S. Department of Education has a "to-do list" starting in Elementary School!
Narrowing Down the Options
Once you've figured out what colleges want from you, you can determine what you want from college. U.S. News and World Report's Guide to Admissions is a great place to start. The site offers detailed info. and unique resources to help you choose the right school, like the college personality quiz, which may help you determine what sort of academic/social balance you're looking for or what kind of challenge you want.
You'll probably also want to take a look at the renowned U.S. News college rankings to find out valuable information, like percentage of classes taught by teaching assistants and percent of students in sororities. If you feel overwhelmed by the possibilities, don't worry. There are many sites that can guide you toward a good fit, such as College Prowler, the College Board and the U.S. Department of Education's College Matching Wizard.
Once you reach the point where you've narrowed your choices and want in-depth information, it's time to visit the specific college Web sites. Take a glance at the University of Texas at Austin's listing of direct links to hundreds of schools, to learn more. Another great way to get an impression of a school before you visit in person is through virtual tours. Campus Tours is a database site, with links for virtual tours, Web cams, interactive maps and videos, and eCampusTours offers 360° virtual campus tours. CollegeClickTV features 2,000 videos from 175 schools, complete with interviews of students and faculty from universities nationwide. When you do decide to visit a university in person, check out this great outline from eCampusTours about how to prepare, what to bring, what to ask and more.
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. You might also consider the Universal College Application application or the Common Application, each of which is accepted by hundreds of universities, and can save you time. Get some tips on your essay and application from the College Board's Essay Skills section.
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.
You'll also want to look into scholarships and what your school's policy on outside funding is. To find scholarships, search SuperCollege's scholarship database, FastWeb! and the College Board's Scholarship Search.
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!