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The Search Is On

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North Bethesda, Md.

Classes just started a few days ago here at Georgetown Preparatory School. But Alejandro Hernandez has already started thinking about next year. Like many college-bound seniors, Alex faces a daunting task: finding the college that's right for him.

But thanks to a growing number of high-tech marketing tools, choosing the right college--and completing that unnerving application--may have just gotten a whole lot easier.

So when Alex discovered one of these state-of-the-art search programs in the guidance office at Georgetown Prep, he didn't waste any time. He sat right down at the Macintosh and booted up CollegeView, a multimedia software program designed to help students find a college or university that matches their needs and interests.

First, Alex meets his "virtual tour guides," miniature video images appearing at the bottom of his computer screen. They cheerfully provide prerecorded directions, occasionally pointing to icons of manila file folders that appear above their heads as they explain how a particular feature works.

"It's very politically correct," Alex observes wryly, pointing out that his male and female guides come from a variety of ethnic groups.

With a few clicks of the mouse, Alex can "visit" any of the campuses that have paid to include "FullView" CD-ROM presentations--complete with video clips, audio tracks, still photographs, and detailed charts. He can listen to an entire presentation, or just to a section that interests him, such as academics or student life.

In the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's presentation, for example, a photo of the campus appears, followed by a map highlighting the university's location relative to other cities like Chicago and St. Louis.

"And the cities of Champaign and Urbana have been growing so much in the last year," says the recorded voice of a student. "It's just incredible how fast things are growing and changing here."

Selecting another feature, Alex clicks the mouse and a U.S. map appears on the color screen. He moves the cursor to pinpoint Bethesda's location and clicks the mouse again to find all the colleges within a 200-mile radius. One more click and he'll get those within an hour's driving time.

Whenever Alex is ready to fill out his applications, he can use other new programs on the market like CollegeLink, MacApply, or software produced by individual colleges and universities to complete the forms electronically.

No fuss, no muss. It almost sounds, well, fun.

Simplifying the Search

This month, CollegeView will face some new competition when the College Board unveils its Explorer Plus Guidance and Application Network. A similar software program, ex-pan will also feature the added benefits of financial-aid worksheets, a scholarship data base, and the option of submitting applications on-line to any of the 100 colleges featured.

CollegeView, developed by a four-year-old Cincinnati company, is one of the more sophisticated pieces of software currently on the market, according to Michael A. Steidel, the director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The CD-ROM program includes a directory of information on 3,000 colleges and universities derived from the Orchard House college guides; a search function to locate which colleges meet specific criteria; and a "resource center" containing a glossary of admissions and financial-aid terms and other useful information.

Using the search feature, for example, Alex at Georgetown Prep can rapidly generate a list of all the colleges located in the Northeast that offer a criminal-justice major. By plugging in a few more variables--like student-body size or coeducational setting--he can narrow down his list of prospective campuses even further, all in a matter of minutes.

Once Alex has pared down his choices, he can browse through electronic files on each college, comparing lists of student activities and scrutinizing such institutional statistics as what percentage of first-year students return for their sophomore year.

Alex can also create a personal profile that lists his grade-point average, extracurricular activities, and other pertinent information. If he wants, he can even send this scholastic r‚sum‚ or an information request to the colleges of his choice via electronic mail.

All these options, Alex says, make using CollegeView easier and more fun than scanning the small type and complicated charts in traditional paperback college guides.

But CollegeView is not without bugs. Today, Alex finds the program abruptly shuts down whenever he selects "Student Life." And it's unable to locate Saint Anselm College when he spells the name using "St." instead of "Saint."

But Frank Brightwell, the director of guidance at Georgetown Prep, says the company's technical support makes up for any occasional glitches. "Whenever I call with a problem or question, they've been very responsive."

Up until this year, Brightwell had bought college-information software produced by Peterson's, the College Board, and Orchard House for Georgetown Prep, a 400-student Jesuit boys' college-prep school. But this year, he decided to replace them with CollegeView. Although it's considerably more expensive--between $545 and $695 a year--Brightwell says he felt it offered the most information and resources and was more user-friendly. Schools that buy their own hardware pay less for the software, a $295 annual fee.

Another selling point: Last year, CollegeView offered to loan the necessary hardware--either a Macintosh or i.b.m. p.c. with hard drive, CD-ROM drive, modem, and printer--to the first 1,500 high schools that signed up. To sweeten the offer all the more, the company even threw in an extra year of free software use.

For colleges, being included in CollegeView's "FullView" video/audio section is also costly, up to $15,000 per year. So it's not surprising that only 31 of the 3,000 colleges have opted to do so. It seems even less surprising when you consider that it's free to be listed in the "KeyFacts" section, which includes most of the staple information featured in college guides: a list of majors, ethnic mix, extracurricular activities, and the like.

"You have to stop doing something else [if you want] to start doing CollegeView," Carnegie Mellon's Steidel says.

Applying on Disk

Carnegie Mellon wasn't willing to shell out the cash for CollegeView's video/audio capabilities. But it was willing to pay a one-time charge of $4,000 to make its application available on disk through CollegeLink, a service offered by Enrollment Technologies of Concord, Mass.

Students applying via CollegeLink pay a $35 fee to apply to up to 10 colleges. Sitting at a computer, they fill out a "master" application and answer any supplemental questions their prospective colleges may require. Applicants send the disk to CollegeLink, which sends back a print-out and release forms for them to sign. CollegeLink then sends either a disk or print-out to each college.

"We'd rather download the information if we can," Steidel says. "In the most basic sense, we're eliminating the typewriter. In the most sophisticated sense, we're allowing the student to do the data entry for us."

Currently, about 650 colleges and universities accept applications prepared on CollegeLink, including Harvard, Stanford, and Duke universities.

Susan S. Faria, a freshman at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., says she found applying through CollegeLink saved time and energy. "I didn't have to write four essays for four different schools, " she says. "I wrote one essay for four schools."

When she applied last year, only two other students in her class of 370 at Peabody (Mass.) High School tried it. "I had never heard of anybody else using it," she acknowledges, "so I was a little bit scared it wasn't right." But with encouragement from a business teacher at her high school, she decided to give it a whirl.

Susan's risk proved to be a fortuitous one. When Northeastern University lost her application, she was able to phone CollegeLink and verify that it had been sent. "It really helped that I could call someone," she recalls. "They could just resubmit it for me, and they were really helpful."

Last month, Washington University in St. Louis became the first institution to announce that it prefers applicants to use CollegeLink rather that the traditional paper form. It offers high school seniors the software free of charge.

The University of Southern California reduces its application fee from $55 to $35 to those who apply electronically using a disk it provides. The incentive seems to be working: So far, nearly 25 percent are sending their applications on disk.

This fall, the Common Application will be available on disk for the first time. Distributed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the standardized application form is accepted by about 140 institutions, most of them private colleges. So far, n.a.s.s.p. has received 65 requests for the disks, which cost $10 each. Schools that buy them are free to make as many copies as they want at no charge.

Other electronic-application programs currently available include MacApply and Peterson's Electronic Application Service. Students can also apply using CollegeView, but only to the schools that have FullView presentations. However, company representatives say they expect to expand this option soon.

Making the Connection

About 90 percent of high school guidance counselors have personal computers in their offices, according to a recent member survey of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors. Half report that they're also connected to a local computer network, and 40 percent have access to dial-up network services like CompuServe. Still, only 12 percent are linked electronically with colleges, and only 10 percent use new technology to complete computerized applications.

In its annual survey on college guides, Wooster College found that slightly more than half of incoming freshman surveyed had access to computerized college-selection programs, and 60 percent of those who did used them. The overwhelming majority of survey respondents, 215 of 221 freshman, had access to the programs through their high schools.

Surprisingly, however, only 14.6 percent found the computer programs more useful than printed guidebooks, 32.7 percent found them less useful, and the remaining 52.7 expressed no opinion.

Jeffrey G. Hanna, Wooster's director of college relations, says he's not surprised by the findings. "Guides are still the way students look to receive the information. But it's clear from everything that I know about admissions that that's changing."

In the meantime, as they wait until one or two programs become the industry standard, high school guidance counselors struggle to guess which technology is least likely to become obsolete.

More and more, Brightwell says he finds himself becoming a consumer-advocate for students. "I'm bombarded with information every day," he sighs. "There's so much out there. My role is to help parents and students realize the cost of these things."

Linda N. Shapiro, the director of guidance at Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., recently discovered an old guidance gadget when cleaning out the school's career center. "You took a plastic page and put it over the light board," she explains, "and it would cover up everything but the colleges in New England." Then, students could take another transparency to cover up all the ones that didn't offer their desired major and continue until only a few were left visible.

But, ultimately, Shapiro suggests, there's no replacement for going to visit a campus in person, sitting in on classes, checking out the dorms, and scrutinizing its course catalogue.

"This lovely light-box thing, which must have been state-of-the-art about 20 years ago, is going to the scrap heap," she laughs. "We need a museum for guidance dinosaurs."

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