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The school year is just getting under way at Georgetown Prep-aratory School in North Bethesda, Md., 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.

Thanks to a growing number of high-tech marketing tools, that chore--and completing the unnerving college application process--has just gotten a whole lot easier.

When Alex discovered one of these state-of-the-art software programs in the guidance office at Georgetown Prep, a 400-student Jesuit prep school for boys, he wasted no time. He sat down at the Macintosh and booted up CollegeView, a multimedia program designed to help high school students find a college or university that matches their needs and interests. The program was developed by a 4-year-old Cincinnati-based company of the same name.

First, Alex meets his "virtual tour guides,'' miniature video images that cheerfully provide prerecorded directions about how each feature works. "It's very politically correct,'' Alex observes wryly, pointing out that the 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 CollegeView to include a CD-ROM presentation--complete with video clips, audio tracks, still photographs, and detailed charts. He can listen to an entire presentation or just a section on topics such as "student life'' or "academics.''

When Alex calls up the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, a photo of the campus appears, followed by a map highlighting the university's location relative to cities such as 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.''

Alex decides to shift to another CollegeView feature. With the click of the mouse, a U.S. map appears on the color screen. He moves the cursor to pinpoint Bethesda and clicks the mouse again to find all the colleges within a 200-mile radius. Another click gives him those within an hour's driving time.

When Alex is ready to submit an application, he can do so via computer, using other new software products or programs produced by individual colleges and universities. No fuss, no muss. It almost sounds fun.

This fall, CollegeView got some new competition when the College Board unveiled its Explorer Plus Guidance and Application Network. The new system, known as EX-PAN, is similar to CollegeView but features the added benefits of financial-aid work sheets, a scholarship database, and the option of submitting applications online to any of the 100 colleges featured.

Still, CollegeView is one of the more sophisticated pieces of multimedia software currently on the market, according to Michael Steidel, director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The CD-ROM program, for example, 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 a specific student-body size--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 the electronic files on each college, comparing institutional statistics and other factors.

Still, CollegeView is not without bugs. On this particular day, 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 "St.'' instead of "Saint.'' Frank Brightwell, director of guidance at Georgetown Prep, says the company's technical support makes up for the occasional glitches. "Whenever I call with a problem or question, they've been very responsive,'' he says.

Until this year, Brightwell had bought college software produced by Peterson's, the College Board, and Orchard House. But he decided to replace those with CollegeView. Although the product is considerably more expensive--between $545 and $695 a year--Brightwell says he felt it offered the most information and was more user-friendly than the others.

Another selling point: Last year, the company offered to loan the necessary hardware--either a Macintosh or IBM computer with CD-ROM drive, modem, and printer--to the first 1,500 high schools that signed up. To further sweeten the offer, the company threw in an extra year of free software use. For colleges, being included in the program's "FullView'' video and audio section is also costly, up to $15,000 a year. So not surprisingly, only 31 of the 3,000 colleges and universities included in the package have opted to do so thus far. 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 other college guides: majors offered, ethnic mix, extracurricular activities, and the like. To afford being included in the video and audio component, college admissions offices "have to stop doing something else,'' says Carnegie Mellon's Steidel.

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

For a $35 fee, students can apply, via CollegeLink, to up to 10 participating institutions. 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 printout and release forms for them to sign. CollegeLink then sends either a disk or printout to each college. Carnegie Mellon prefers the disk. "In the most basic sense, we're eliminating the typewriter,'' Steidel says. "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.

For Susan Faria, a freshman at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., 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 her high school business teacher, she decided to give it a whirl.

Faria'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. "They could just resubmit it for me,'' she says.

This past September, Washington University in St. Louis became the first institution in the nation to announce that it actually prefers applicants to use CollegeLink rather than the traditional paper application. Other institutions are offering small inducements to get students to shift to software. The University of Southern California, for example, reduces its application fee from $55 to $35 for those who apply electronically using a disk it provides. The incentive seems to be working. So far, nearly 25 percent of the university's candidates are sending their applications on disk. Other electronic-application programs currently available include MacApply and Peterson's Electronic Application Service. Students can also apply using CollegeView but only to the 31 institutions that have paid for the FullView presentations. Company officials say they expect to expand this option soon. In its annual survey on college guides, Wooster College found that slightly more than half of incoming freshmen surveyed had access to computerized college-selection programs, and 60 percent of those who did used them. Surprisingly, however, only 15 percent found the computer programs more useful than printed guidebooks, 33 percent found them less useful, and the remaining 53 percent expressed no opinion.

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

--Meg Sommerfeld

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