laise Pascal wrote, "The heart can know things reason will never understand." That wisdom applies to choosing a college.

"If the place you choose feels right to you, you increase your chances for doing good work," says Jim Wolfston, president of CollegeNET, a Web-based college admissions company in Portland, Ore. "For some, that will mean a small school; for others it will mean a larger environment."

With more than 3,000 colleges to pick from, how do you narrow your choices to a manageable number?

Successful searches begin with knowing who you are. Knowing yourself and what you do well will help you discover where you'll do well. Examine your academic and professional goals, financial resources, scholastic record, and special interests. U.S. News & World Report's College Personality Quiz can help you find a college where you'll thrive.

    For parents

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Don't be
unduly influenced
by prestige,
guidebook rankings,
or opinions of alumni
who graduated
30 years ago.
Colleges have personalities, too
To find the best match, start with what you want in a college. From location, size, curriculum, and cost to your chances for admission and the school's social scene, piece information together from college brochures to make an initial list of colleges of interest. At this point, don't dismiss a college because it's more than you can afford. Sort schools by a number of criteria using U.S. News & World Report's College Search.

While college Web sites and glossy brochures paint a rosy picture, don't ignore those sources. By piecing together what you can, an accurate campus picture will begin to emerge. What you can't discern from those sources is the feeling of a college environment.

Get a clear picture
Enhancing a campus visit by talking with students and faculty and asking candid questions of tour guides is the only way to get a feel for the school. During the visit you will be bombarded with new experiences. So come up with a list of questions the source materials don't answer before setting foot on campus to guide your discussions with students, faculty, and admissions officials. For more help, check out U.S. News & World Report's detailed list of questions.

While campus tour guides offer plenty of facts, ask them about personal experiences. For example, if a guide says the average number of students per class is 15, ask how many students are in his or her classes. These personal accounts will liven up the statistics.

Don't dismiss
a college because
it's more than
you can afford.

You're looking
for the details,
not the big picture
that you can get
from the college

Nothing comes close to being there
Every school you visit will tout ways it will make your college years the best of your life—from meeting multicultural friends and inspirational professors to enjoying a friendly campus and first-rate education, bubbly tour guides will promise it all. How do you get a balanced perspective of the college scene?

Close examination during a college visit can lead you to pick a school where your image of the ideal experience can become a reality. You're looking for the details, not the big picture that you can get from the college catalogs. Pinpoint what you want to know, then go off the beaten path to seek it out.

Start each visit off right by calling the admissions office at least two weeks in advance to find out what the campus offers. Campus tours vary, so ask if it's possible for you to sit in on classes, meet professors, shadow a student, eat in the dining hall, spend a night, or see facilities of interest to you.

Plan more than two weeks ahead to take full advantage of unique opportunities to visit a campus, such as the Open Campus Experience at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., which gives you the chance to live like one of the 2,500 Smith students for two days every April. Options usually are different at larger schools, such as at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which gives prospective students a glimpse of the life of its 40,000 students through campus tours.

There's no one way to visit a campus. But to really take the pulse of the place, visit on a weekday during fall or spring semesters—but not during finals or vacation weeks—to see regular routines. If you can't go while classes are in session, don't let that stop you—any visit is better than not visiting at all.

Keep these guidelines in mind when preparing for each visit:
  • Start visiting colleges close to home during your junior year.
  • Give yourself at least half a day to cover a campus, and visit no more than two colleges per day.
  • Plan carefully—get directions before setting foot on campus and schedule interviews in advance.

And once on campus:

  • Begin with an information session, then strike out on your own.
  • Pay attention to your first impressions.
  • Take notes while on campus and review them later.
  • Visit classes and dorm rooms, eat in a cafeteria, read bulletin boards, check out the student union and library, meet with faculty members, pick up student newspapers, and check out facilities.
  • Ask current students what they like and don't like about the school. "Talking with students is the best way to get to know a college," says Sally Rubenstone, co-author of "College Admissions: A Crash Course for Panicked Parents" (2nd ed.) and admissions official at Smith College. "Ask students how easy it is for them to get direct help from faculty members," adds Wolfston.
  • Take pictures. "Some far-sighted families even tote camcorders," suggests "College Admissions."
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions when you think of them.
  • Try to envision yourself as a student on each campus—stay overnight, explore beyond the campus confines, and trust your instincts.
  • And remember, you're seeking the best academic environment for you, so split up from your parents for some of the visit to get a feel for what it would be like to be there on your own.
Don't be unduly influenced by prestige, guidebook rankings, or opinions of alumni who graduated 30 years ago. "Ratings can be helpful in narrowing down choices," says Wolfston. "But like movie reviews, you should feel free to disagree with them."

And to disagree with yourself. On the basis of experiences, you should be willing to alter—perhaps significantly—your previous ranking of what was important. Many students start the search process believing there is one ideal place for them but often find several colleges where they could thrive.

The next best thing
For many families, getting there is not half the fun. If cost or time constraints prevent your family from making the trip to campus, consider replacing the bricks and mortar of traditional campus visits with the clicks and mortar of a virtual tour.

Duke (Durham, N.C.) University's interactive virtual tour with 360-degree panoramic campus scenes and the University of Wisconsin's slide show of its campus in action offer a glimpse of college life from the comforts of home. "But keep in mind that, just as travel brochures won't let you feel the warm sand of Waikiki, photos found on typical Web pages can't compete with a real stroll through the library, dining commons, or 'Stu U,' " warns "College Admissions." "More telling, however, are student publications that can usually also be accessed from the Web."

Graduates of state
universities earn
only slightly less
through their careers
than do graduates of
Ivy League schools.

Final thoughts
Your parents should be your greatest allies in your college pursuit, and because they're likely to be helping you fund your education, it's very important to consult them. You'll discover that you have very different views than your parents, but put your heads together during the decision making process.

Rubenstone advises making sure your high-school guidance counselor is on your side as well. Your counselor has a gold mine of information—but you have to ask for it.

"Too often, students and their parents simply assume certain colleges are out of their financial reach, and guidance counselors do nothing to dispel this belief," says Rubenstone. "The truth is, the pricier a college, the more money there is to give away."

Rubenstone says the majority of students admitted to Smith, where she works as an admissions official, receive financial aid, including middle-class students whose parents may not have done a super job of saving for college.

"Set your sights as high as possible at the start of your college search," Rubenstone says. "Sure, finances may indeed play a part when a student makes a final decision about which school to attend, but no tuition price tag should be so formidable as to deter a bright high schooler from applying to a top college."

And you have one more key support in this endeavor—visit your credit union for information about student loans. (Use this "What Will it Take to Save for a College Education" calculator to help your planning.)

For parents

One experience many students share on a campus visit is the fear their parents will embarrass them by grilling tour guides and admissions officials.

From a parent's point of view, the idea of firing away questions may seem like a smart move. With college costs rising, you want to be assured you're getting the best value from your college investment.

To allay your student's fears—and still receive answers to your financial, academic, and personal concerns—prepare a list of key questions in advance to make the best use of your time on campus. For more help, check out U.S. News & World Report's detailed list of questions.

Jim Wolfston, president of CollegeNET, a Web-based college admissions company in Portland, Ore., answers two common concerns: How much does a school's name recognition play a role in future career options? And how can parents cope with their student's decision to attend a school far from home?

To address the first question, Wolfston cites a recent Chronicle of Higher Education study showing that, on average, graduates of state universities earn only slightly less through their careers than do graduates of Ivy League schools.

"Your student's chances for success are enhanced by attending a 'nameplate' institution as an undergraduate," Wolfston says. "The key to lifetime career success, though, is to develop strong work habits and a passion for learning that you can carry into your profession. And your student can do this very well at any credible undergraduate institution."

And if that institution is located 1,000 miles from home? "The reluctance to send your student far away is a perfectly legitimate concern that nobody should feel chagrined about," Wolfston says. "However, it is important to keep in mind that the world is becoming a much smaller place with plane tickets and e-mail. And your child's educational and life experience will almost always be enhanced by a change in geography, a change in context."

You will find reactions to each campus are highly subjective, but the effort to map out a careful plan for visiting schools helps ensure that when the day arrives to leave home, your student will head confidently for a campus that suits his or her needs.

For more information
Check out College PlannerU.S. News & World Report's six work sheets help you organize the process of selecting a college and getting in. The first three guide you in creating a list of schools and in making the most of campus visits. The next two help you streamline the application process, and the final work sheet helps families compare financial aid awards.

Learn what to expect from—and how to ace—your college interview.

Search a scholarship database of more than $1 billion in awards without divulging personal information.

Mapping Your Future's extensive Web site for counseling about college, career, and financial aid choices.

Take the first step in the financial aid process at FAFSA.

Take a virtual tour—

Check out Collegiate Choice Walking Tours' library of more than 300 videos of actual campus tours.

Or try out the virtual campus tours at Peterson's CollegeQuest or Campus Tours.

And read more—

"College Admissions: A Crash Course for Panicked Parents" (2nd ed.), by Sally Rubenstone and Sidonia Dalby, Arco Publishing, 1997 (ISBN 0028619315).

"Smart Parents' Guide to College: The 10 Most Important Factors for Students and Parents When Choosing a College," by Ernest L. Boyer and Paul Boyer, Contributor, 1996 (ISBN 1560795913).

"Visiting College Campuses," by The Princeton Review, 1999 (ISBN 0375752218).

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.