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Choosing A College, With Help From The Web

By Kate Stone Lombardi

Sept 20, 2006 (NEW YORK TIMES) -- Annie Allhoff was valedictorian of her high school class, and everyone expected her to apply to Ivy League colleges. Annie, 18, had other ideas.

Annie Allhoff, a freshman at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. used a search engine while she was in high school in Missouri to help choose her college.

“I knew I wanted a small liberal arts school comparable in academics to the Ivy League, but without the name-brand ultracompetitiveness that goes along with Princeton, Harvard and Yale,” she said.

Her mother bought Annie a thick college review book, and Annie visited the counseling center at her high school, in St. Louis. Ultimately, though, an Internet search engine helped Annie narrow her choices.

As the college application process has become increasingly available through the Web, many companies —Princeton Review, the College Board, Kaplan, Thomson Peterson and others — are offering search engines that help students put together a list of colleges to consider. Although some sites purport to calculate a student’s likelihood of winning acceptance, the site Annie used, and similar ones, are like a computer dating service, matching students with potentially compatible colleges.

Annie visited Counselor-O-Matic, offered by Princeton Review. After entering information about the kind of school she was looking for, along with her grades, class rank and SAT scores, the site generated a list that included an institution she had never heard of: Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

The more Annie researched Pomona, the better a fit she thought it would be. She is now a freshman there.

“I hadn’t even been considering California,” Annie said. “But when the name came up on the list, it kind of planted the seed that I could go far away. Then I started looking at the profile, then reading student reviews, and it sounded really great.” Counselor-O-Matic and similar sites are free to students because they are operated by companies that make money from advertising, from fees paid by colleges and from selling the names of prospective students to colleges.

For the companies, the sites are a good investment because they attract students to related enterprises — the sales of test-preparation materials, for example.

The sites all generally work the same way. A student selects criteria, such as urban, suburban or rural campus; size of the institution; and tuition and fees — and enters his or her academic profile. The program then analyzes the information and generates a list of schools. With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, search engines can help narrow the field by provoking students to think about what factors matter to them. This is particularly useful for students seeking admission to the most selective institutions, because they may apply to a dozen or more.

“If a college counselor and a young person are having a conversation and the youngster is able to say, ‘I did this electronic search, these are the places it came up with and here are the criteria I was using,’ the conversation is already farther along than one that begins, ‘Well, have you thought at all about what you’re looking for?’ ” said J. Richard R. Tobin, director of college counseling at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Search engines can be especially helpful for students at large high schools, where the ratio of students to counselors can be as high as 800 to 1, or for a student who has extremely specific criteria: the girl who wants a Christian college in the Southeast that offers cheerleading and a biochemistry major.

But critics say students must realize that search engines are not guidance counselors. They reduce the search to a numbers game and cannot factor in the culture of a campus, the personality of a student, or the more elusive concept of a fit.

“A lot of my students say they use the College Board search engine or Counselor-O-Matic when they first come to me,” said Bari M. Norman, an independent college counselor in Miami. “I tell them that it’s a good first draft, but you need a human being to contextualize this stuff.”

Searches often result in widely disparate institutions; for example, Bard College, known for attracting nonconformist students, and the United States Military Academy showed up on one student’s list from Counselor-O-Matic.

Jonathan Katz, chief executive officer of Princeton Review, explained that the two institutions are both small, academically rigorous schools in the Northeast, criteria that account for them appearing together.

Mr. Katz added that the search engine was being modified to include data about students’ attitudes about sexuality, race, partying and political leanings, and that this would help prevent unusual results.

“If we asked, ‘Where would you put yourself on the spectrum of a college that is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or “chalk your sexuality on the sidewalks,” ’ that will make it less likely that it will give you those two schools,” he said.

Another drawback to the search engines is that they do not weigh factors that college officials consider when they are putting together their classes, like geographic distribution, the reputations of various high schools and sports prowess. And while most searches include questions about athletic offerings, students who are hoping to be recruited look elsewhere online.

Maddie Warlan, 17, a senior at St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island, wants to row for a crew team in college. She visited Counselor-O-Matic to help her find schools that likely would accept her, but for athletics, she has registered on a recruiting site for college crew coaches.

All the services differ in tone and scope. Kaplan’s college search is straightforward, with simple prompts like “size of school” or “degree offered.”

Counselor-O-Matic is more chatty. A question measuring students’ participation in extra curricular activities includes options that range from “You have a special talent in dance music, art, debate; you’ve been elected community volunteer of the decade,” to “You cast your vote for this year’s prom theme, but aren’t involved in activities you’d want to discuss with an admissions officer.” Most companies that offer search-engine services say they are meant to be only the beginning of the search process, and also offer related products.

For example, most sites offer online college planners, so students can save their searches, take notes or receive automatic feeds from colleges on their list. Students who use Thomson Peterson’s search engine, College Quest, can choose colleges they are interested in, and then subscribe to a service that automatically downloads updates to their computer. A student interested in playing baseball at an institution will get updates every time there is new information about the sport on the college’s Web site.

Still, despite these resources, few guidance counselors embrace the tool wholeheartedly. Thomas A. Hanley, Jr., director of College Guidance at Loyola School in Manhattan, said his students routinely enlist the help of online college searches. But the Internet cannot read emotion, he said.

“Fear, self-doubt, anxiety and self-esteem are all at play in the college search,” he said. “The authentic human interaction is still, thankfully, one of the best ways to reflect with another on one’s choices in life.”

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