Guides retain key role in making college choice

Students say the books provide important facts in narrowing possibilities

March 26, 2000|By Diane B. Mikulis | Diane B. Mikulis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With hundreds of colleges to choose from, high school seniors might feel overwhelmed making that all-important decision of where to go -- and sometimes start their search by hitting the books.

In addition to campus visits, talks with admissions counselors, and Internet searches, many students rely on college guides and rating books to narrow down their choices. That's what Christina Wells, a freshman at Salisbury State University, did.

Thinking about things such `as class sizes, college size, majors offered, diversity, SAT scores of incoming freshmen and tuition costs helped Christina determine what she was looking for.

"The books helped me with the questions I should ask," the Severna Park resident said.

By browsing through the books, Christina learned about colleges that she would otherwise not have considered and was able to identify those that would meet her needs. Because she is a vegetarian, the quality and variety of food available in the cafeteria was of importance to her.

She visited six schools, noting that the descriptions in the books were fairly accurate, and she decided on Salisbury.

"The books were definitely of value to me," she said. "All of them combined give lots of information."

Dozens of books on the market rate and describe colleges and provide advice to students and their parents on how to make a decision. Some include brief information about many schools and others contain more details on fewer schools.

Among the more popular are America's Best Colleges (U.S. News & World Report), Princeton Review: The 331 Best American Colleges, Peterson's Guide to Four-Year Colleges, The College Handbook (The College Board), The Fiske Guide to Colleges and Barron's Best Buys in College Education.

ITAL U.S. News & World Report END ITAL and ITAL Time END ITAL also publish college issues of their magazines.

Anne McGrath, managing editor of America's Best Colleges, said the directory section of the book is the most popular. It includes information about more than 1,400 four-year colleges in the United States, ranked according to various criteria.

"Students use the rankings as a tool to help them compare the academic strengths and weaknesses of colleges," McGrath said. "They help students put some schools on their lists."

Since 1990, the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, has surveyed its freshman class each year on the use of college guide books. This school year, administrators found that more than 76 percent of the students consulted guides and of those, nearly 78 percent used more than one book, with three being the most common number.

"Students are savvy consumers, and they're using all the tools at their disposal, but they're not relying solely on them," said Jeff Hanna, director of college relations at Wooster.

Hanna said the guides are used early in the process, when students are making initial lists of colleges that they want to learn more about.

But the Wooster survey showed that an increasing number of students are using the World Wide Web as a source of information, once they have narrowed down their choices. Many read about the colleges in guide books and then go online to the schools' Web sites to get more information.

Stephanie Panichello, 17, of Ellicott City, a senior at River Hill High School in Clarksville, researched colleges in that way. She visited the library and read the many guides on the shelves. "There's a ton of resources you can use," she said.

She then listed her choices and researched them on the Web. Stephanie visited five colleges and applied to seven.

She said the guides were useful, but acknowledged that the visits would have more influence on her final decision.

"You don't see the place when you're looking through a book," she said.

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