So Many Choices

While there's no set formula to knowing how many schools you should apply to, Guttentag suggests that students apply to six or eight different schools (application fees run from $10 to about $60), including a couple of "safety schools" (places where you're almost certain to be accepted), two or three "target schools" (places where your chances of being admitted are about 50 percent) and a couple of "reach schools," schools you'd like to attend but aren't sure you qualify for. But remember, all of the schools you apply to should fall within the "comfortable and challenged" category.

Students generally find it easy to pick their reach schools, Guttentag says, but difficult to choose their safety schools. "That's unfortunate because they might wind up there, and there are many wonderful colleges and universities where you can have as enriching and rewarding experiences as you can at a more visible school," he says. (His favorite book about college admissions is "Colleges That Change Lives," by Loren Pope. The book looks at about 40 small schools and focuses on how they're preparing students to go out and make a difference in the world.)

Selecting a College

Guttentag believes that a very important criterion for choosing a college should be the question: Will I be both "comfortable and challenged" there? He believes that these criteria should be applied to every college or university that you consider. He also advises thinking about these three kinds of college environments:

  • Physical environment - Is the college big or small, old or new? Which would you prefer? It's important -- after all, you'll be there for four years!
  • Academic environment - Does the college have the programs and/or major you want? Is it academically rigorous? What are the faculty's expectations of students? What's the overall academic atmosphere -- is it a grind or a party school?
  • Social/cultural environment - Is this university a rural school or a city school? Is it conservative or liberal? Is it religious? Again, we're back to the question: Will you be comfortable there? Guttentag encourages students to view diversity on college campuses as a good thing -- something between the homogeneity of high school and the wide diversity of the "real world."

Other considerations should include a frank look at the question: What are my chances of being admitted to this school? It takes some homework to get the answer, Guttentag says. Start with a school's Web site, checking to see if it includes a profile of the entering class or discusses the kind of students it is looking for. Another revealing way to learn about a school is to visit it! You'll get a pretty good idea rather quickly about what the school is like. In fact, a campus visit is very often the decision-maker in cases where students are accepted at more than one desired college. (Check out Collegiate Choice's Walking Tour Videos for a look at 330 universities and colleges in the United States and abroad.)

Of course, you and/or your parents will want to know how much the college costs per year. And that's certainly important. However, Guttentag urges high school students not to let cost stop them from applying to a school they'd really like to attend. "Don't let the 'sticker price' of a school keep you from applying. As a rule, the less you can afford a school, the more financial aid you can get there," he says. "You might be pleasantly surprised -- even without scholarships -- at what need-based financial aid can offer."

Once you have an idea about which schools you want to apply to, you have to begin the actual application process. Let's see how that works.