Planning for college via the web.

By Christina Tynan-Wood Illustration Ryan Inzana

Asking my teenage son Cole where he wants to go to college rarely yields anything more than a who-cares shrug. But, see, I know that move. He’s trying valiantly to convey a mix of boredom and disinterest, while in reality, he’s so overwhelmed by all the options and petrified of rejection that he just wants the question to go away. As a rule, he’s good at figuring stuff out, having grown up in the age of Google. However, his beloved search engine can’t tell him what he should do after high school. So after the most recent round of averted eyes and noncommittal answers, I offered to go online with him and see if we could make some headway. In our eyes, these websites made the grade for ease of use, depth of info and generally making the search process less stressful and simpler to manage.

University Research and Review

Like a digital version of an old-school college admissions counselor, this site asked a series of questions designed to help Cole identify his abilities, interests and goals. A couple of days later, a follow-up email suggested possible areas of study and colleges to consider. Interestingly, that part wasn’t all automated—a human analyzed the data and made personal suggestions.

Khan Academy

Admittedly, we were huge fans of Khan Academy to begin with, having studied all sorts of topics on the mighty learning site since its launch in 2008. Khan did not disappoint in this particular arena, offering a fantastic online resource that covered how to navigate the college application process and then some: writing a killer application essay, lining up financial aid and more. It was the perfect big-picture overview we needed.

Here my son got a taste for what college could be like by virtually sitting in on classes at top-tier universities (Harvard, MIT and many others). There are also options for remedial learning to shore up weak subject areas and AP test prep.

We deemed this an absolute must for college applicants. Most noteworthy in our eyes was an option called Chegg College Admissions, which lets applicants build a portfolio to showcase themselves beyond standardized test scores—especially important for kids whose numbers might not be quite up to par. Also, Chegg Tutors offers useful one-on-one help, with fees starting at just 50 cents a minute.

This site offers more than a million campus reviews by students who’ve actually attended the schools, plus the ability to calculate realistic chances of admission by adding key academic details to a user profile.

Worthwhile admissions tools are coupled with the capability to manage academic credentials (such as transcripts) online so they can be sent easily and shared securely.