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Searching for the Perfect College

When deciding where to apply, students face a dizzying array of guidebooks to help sort out the choices.


A public university or a private college? Local or East Coast? A big urban campus? A small pastoral one?

For the 2.5 million college-bound students in America, the season of anguish has arrived in full force. The stress of getting into the school of their dreams can only be matched by maddening confusion over all the choices.

The United States has more than 1,500 fully accredited four-year colleges and universities. Thousands more offer two-year programs.

So how is one to decide? And will it be the right choice?

Unfortunately, things seem to go wrong for about one-fourth of freshmen a year. That's the portion who don't return to the same school for their sophomore year.

So college counselors urge students to keep an open mind and look beyond the obvious choices. One of the best ways is to browse through college guidebooks--which many high school counseling offices keep on file.

"Most high school seniors know the names of 20 colleges, and maybe not that many," said Julie Neilson, college counselor at Garfield High School. "There are a lot of small colleges that our kids have never heard of. I like to use these books as a reference for our kids who do not get out much."

But even selecting a guidebook can be confusing--given the new titles that arrive every year. A new addition this fall: "Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Plain Different."

Yet college counselors, who match up graduating seniors with colleges year after year, have their clear favorites.

One of the books most commonly mentioned is "The Fiske Guide to Colleges."

"It's the book I buy for my nieces and nephews when they start their search," said Esther Hugo, a longtime counselor who works at Santa Monica College.

Like other veteran counselors, Hugo likes the way the Fiske Guide balances questions about academics with those about quality of student life--from dorm food to campus safety.

The guidebook tends to accentuate the positive, but does not shy from the controversial. Summing up USC, for instance, it says: "A sizable portion of the student body is concerned about what one calls 'a very dangerous area' in which the campus is situated--in the middle of South-Central Los Angeles."

Counselors love the box of tips for each campus. Besides spelling out the all-important application deadlines, it lists overlap schools--those other colleges and universities where its applicants also apply. That gives students ideas about similar places to check out.

Another favorite of college counselors is "The Insider's Guide to the Colleges," which is compiled and edited by the staff of the Yale Daily News.

"It's written by college students and so high school students like to read it," said Linda Zimring, director of the college and gifted/talented programs for a cluster of San Fernando Valley high schools.

Now in its 27th year, the "Insider's Guide" has matured from a handful of sarcastic articles written by "Yale men" about the "lesser Ivy League schools" to a bluntly accurate, sometimes saucy report on 311 colleges.

It plunges straight into campus politics, divulging what students perceive as the good, the bad and the ugly. The best thing about attending UC Berkeley, the guidebook says, is its beautiful campus, its proximity to San Francisco and the abundance of ethnic food. The worst things are "the price of the dorms, some classes are huge and the administration."

Another popular, yet rather controversial, guidebook is produced by the Princeton Review, the SAT-prep company. Its book, "The Best 331 Colleges," works the hardest at trying to be cool and edgy--which some critics consider smart-alecky and even offensive.

Still, it manages to create a buzz with its offbeat and quirky rankings. It ranked Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge as the nation's No. 1 "party school" this year. It has other rankings too. Hofstra University in New York, for instance, won the dubious distinction of having the most boring lectures.

A popular reference book is Barron's "Profiles of American Colleges," offering a comprehensive list of majors, from accounting to zoology, at 1,650 schools. The fat tome is chock-full of statistics too.

It competes with two other telephone-book-sized reference books. Princeton Review publishes the "Complete Book of Colleges," covering more than 1,600 colleges and universities. Peterson's "4 Year Colleges" is even more comprehensive, with information on more than 2,000 colleges and universities.

But students need to be cautious about some information in both of these books. Some is essentially paid advertising, not an independent assessment.

"The Princeton Review charges each school a small fee to be listed, and the editorial responsibility is solely that of the college," says the disclaimer in the "Complete Book of Colleges."

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