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Staying Sane During College Applications

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Sizing Up Schools

Forget about prestige and the handful of colleges that always top the so-called hot lists. "A good school is where your child snaps into place like a puzzle piece," says Arlene Matthews, author of Getting in Without Freaking Out (Three Rivers Press). Here's how to find one.

  • Start with the big picture. Ask your child to describe his dream college. "Focus on types, not names," says Missy Sanchez, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy, a school in College Park, Georgia. Consider size, location, climate, distance from home and campus vibe. Check out nearby campuses to get a sense of big versus small and liberal versus conservative. But, "Don't do formal tours until junior year," says Paradis. Kids shut down if you show them stuff too early, and you'll need test scores to know whether a school is a realistic option.
  • Nail down must-haves. What's nonnegotiable? Amy wanted a school with a winning football team, daily newspaper, charming town and diverse student body. For Matt, a student-run TV station and being close to home were critical.
  • Dedicate time to research. Amy scouted early options on the floor of our local bookstore, with giant guidebooks in her lap. But you can also use search engines (collegeboard.com and princetonreview.com) to find schools matching your child's preferences and academic stats. Log on to college websites for admissions info, blogs, chats and virtual tours.
  • Compile a master list. The preliminary one might be long, but whittling it will get easier with time. The final list should have around eight schools, says Matthews-four targets (where student grades and test scores are within the average range accepted), two safeties (where she has well beyond what it takes to get in) and two reaches (highly selective schools or where student scores are on the low end of the average range accepted). Matthews also suggests including a "financial safety," like a state school or community college.