An Internet Roadmap for the College Bound Student

An Internet Road Map for the College-Bound Student

(Reprinted with permission from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling- NACAC)

From building your preliminary college list to completing your applications to getting ready for your first year at college, the Internet can help you in nearly every part of the college search (except for actually making your decisions, that is). But surfing the 'Net can also eat up time better spent on schoolwork, time with friends, or even sleepingÑwith no guarantee that you'll find what you're looking for. To make sure that your time on the information superhighway is fun instead of frustrating, read on for a guide to Internet use for the college-bound.

The On-Ramp
Accessing the Internet requires a computer and an account with an Internet Service
Provider. But even if you don't have a computer or online access at home, many students sign up for Internet time in a school computer lab or at a local public library. You can even get a free e-mail address (try for a directory of free e-mail options).

One of the best ways to maximize your time online is the savvy use of search engines, or sites where you can search the Web for sites on a topic that interests you. You can type in "college admissions" and get a list of thousands of sites. So it's best to have a good idea of what you're looking for: lists of college home pages, financial aid help, applying online, tips on essays? The programs behind various search engines work differently, so take the time to read through the help page of any search engine you're using for the first time. Here are a few general search engines to try:

Beginning Your College Journey
From the very beginning of your college search, the Internet can be a valuable tool. A good place to start is with websites that provide databases of colleges. Depending on the site, you can type in the geographical area, size, setting, major(s), and other characteristics that interest you. You'll then see a list colleges that match your preferences. These "comparative" sites are a great way to generate a long list of colleges to research further. You might find colleges you haven't even thought of.

As with all information online (or elsewhere, for that matter), consider the source before deciding how much to depend on it. Some comparative sites only include the colleges that pay for the privilege of being listed, so you could miss some good options if you rely on only one site. You'll find that some comparative sites have more information than others about individual colleges. Also, a comparative site may not have the most up-to-date information on deadlines and other time-sensitive material. For that, it's best to contact individual colleges directly (or check the colleges' websites).

Some sites that offer college search options (as well as other college information) include:

There are also many sites about the college admission process in general.

Researching Colleges: Moving on Down the Road
Once you have a preliminary list of colleges that interest you, the Internet can be helpful in researching each college further. The primary ways to research colleges online are through the individual college websites and through e-mail contact.

Most comparative sites also provide links to college home pages. There are also simple lists of college home pages, categorized alphabetically or geographically, such as:

Or just type a college's name into a general search engine.

The websites of individual colleges are often invaluable sources of in-depth information. You can find all the basics--selectivity, size, majors, setting, etc.--in addition to some clues as to what everyday life on campus is like.

Kenneth E. Hartman, author of Internet Guide for College-Bound Students, writes that you can find two types of information about colleges, official and unofficial. Official information is what you can learn from the admissions office, guidebooks, and the college catalog. Unofficial information is the kind you read in the student newspaper, find out from contacting current students, and browsing student-made Web pages. And college Web sites are the easiest way to gather unofficial information short of visiting the college in person.

To make the most of a college's website, try these strategies.

  • Look at the home pages of individual faculty members in majors that interest youÑsome post detailed syllabuses of their classes, descriptions of their research interests, and e-mail addresses. If you have a specific question or two about a major, try sending a faculty member a short, polite e-mail introducing yourself and asking your questions (don't ask anything you can find out in the college catalog, though).
  • Read the pages for prospective students thoroughly. They will give you basic information about the college, as well as some sense of the mission and priorities of the college.

  • Visit the home pages of student organizationsÑyou can check out the schedule for the Outing Club or see what resolutions were passed by the Student Senate.

  • Look for the home pages put up by current students at the college. If students list their e-mail addresses, send short e-mail messages to a few of them asking questions about their college experiences. But don't take a few complaints on one student's home page as gospel; try to look at a good sampling of student pages.

  • Find the alumni association pagesÑwhat are alumni of the college doing now? What is the college doing for its alumni?

Applying to Colleges: Avoid the Bumps in the Road

The option of applying to colleges online is becoming more and more common. A few colleges even require online applications (but the vast majority of colleges do not). Computer-minded students will probably feel that applying online is easier and even more enjoyable than the traditional application. (Check out for the Web-enabled Common Application, which is accepted by many colleges across the country.)

Whether or not you apply online has no bearing on the college's admission decision. Admission officers are committed to assessing each application on its content, not how it was received.

Two problems can creep in when students apply online, but you can avoid them. First, students who use e-mail and other interactive Internet options for casual correspondence may have a tendency to write their online applications in their usual e-mail language. But online applications should be just as literate and error-free as their traditional counterparts. That means no cool Inter net abbreviations or emoticons, and a well-proofread essay. This advice seems obvious, but some admission officers have noticed that the quality of some online applications has been questionable.

The second problem stems from the relative ease of applying online: submitting too many applications. No matter how easy it may be to push a button and send yet another application, submitting a large number of applications often makes your final decision more difficult. It's better to spend some time researching colleges and narrowing your list rather than applying to a bunch of colleges you don't know much about.

Warning Signs
Not all of the information you find on the Internet is accurate. Anyone can put up a website for minimal cost and say anything they want. That means that you need to consider the source of anything you find on the Web. Before depending on information from a website, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where is the information coming from? That is, who is sponsoring the site?
  • What motives might the person or organization behind the site have for publishing certain information? For example, corporations want to sell their products, and activist organizations want to draw readers to their cause. There is plenty of good information on corporate and activist sites, of course, but be aware that you might be getting only one side of the story.

  • Can you find similar information elsewhere, on unrelated sites?

  • Are opinions backed up with facts or references to other publications?

Finally, if you have any questions about college admission information you find on the Internet, ask your guidance or college counselor.

Don't Leave the Dirt Roads Behind
The information superhighway can be exciting and useful, but sometimes the traditional avenues are just as valuable. No matter how detailed a website is, it can't take the place of visiting a campus or talking to people who know the college firsthand. And the Internet is not nearly as helpful when you need to make a big decision about where to apply or to attend. For that, you need to consult your own goals, feelings, and thoughtsÑand your best help may be a real-time conversation with your family or your college counselor.

Written by Jennifer Gross.