Before Sonia Vasan sat down to apply to 24 colleges, she considered using The Common Application, a form accepted by more than 100 schools. "But I thought that filing photocopies just didn't look right," she says. Instead, to save time and give each applica-tion a personal touch, she loaded a program called CollegeLink onto her personal computer. It interviewed her, requesting information tailored to the schools she had chosen. After sending her data to the publisher, she got completed laser-printed applications in a few days that looked like each college's preprinted forms. Explains Vasan, now a sophomore at Wellesley College: "They were all personalized and looked more professional."
Like Vasan, a growing number of students and parents are turning to their PCs for help in maneuvering through the college maze. Need advice in choosing a major? Several software packages will quiz you about your strengths and temperament, then suggest options that suit you best. Want to know what type of students attend Carnegie Mellon before you apply? Browse CMU students' personal home pages posted on the World Wide Web. Curious about requirements to get into Washington University's Black Composer Repertory Chorus? E-mail the director. (Addresses are often listed in a college's online directories or departmental home pages.)
PRETTY PENNY. This marriage of computers and college isn't totally new. High school guidance offices and some libraries have long had access to the College Board's ExPAN online database of college-admission and career information. And test-prep companies such as Kaplan Educational Centers make a pretty penny peddling software that prepares students for admissions exams. But falling prices of multimedia computers and the phenomenal growth of the Web allow millions of today's families to turn to their home PCs throughout the college search.
There's plenty of software to help. One of the best programs is Princeton Review's College Advisor '97, a CD-ROM that includes a search engine that selects schools based on your preferences, offers facts on more than 1,200 colleges, and presents opinionated reviews of more than 300 top colleges. CollegeEdge isn't nearly as helpful but has some decent advice on careers. Consult friends before you buy: The video clips on Kaplan's OnCampus '96 five-CD set of campus tours, for instance, are too short to be of much use.
You'll find far more variety on the Web. A top pick there is the College Board Online site. As you would expect from the people who bring you the Scholastic Assessment Test, there's plenty of preparation and registration information for both the general SAT I exam and the newer SAT II subject tests. (Be sure to check out the Test Question of the Day.) You also can register online for the College Scholarship Service's PROFILE (a financial form used by selective colleges such as Emory University). Better yet, the site has sections providing advice on college majors and careers and an introduction to education-financing options that parents will appreciate. Another Web site with good parental resources is the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corp.'s Adventures in Education page.
FEAR OF TYPING. The sites of test-prep outfits such as Kaplan (www.kaplan.com) and Princeton Review (PR) do far more than just hawk their pricey classes. Both include good search engines to develop your list of college prospects. And educational publisher Peterson's Education Center offers some very helpful articles on topics such as writing the college essay.
Next, visit the Web sites of individual colleges. They feature admissions data and in many cases school calendars, requirements for various majors, and photographic campus tours. You can get there via links from programs such as College Advisor '97, through test-prep Web sites, or by using Web search engines like Yahoo!.
If you've settled on certain schools but are terrified by the thought of typing all those applications, your computer can help in several ways. CollegeLink, the program Vasan used, is especially attractive if you have an older machine. The program comes on a floppy disk, and versions are available for a variety of PCs, including those powered by processors as slow as an Intel 286. CollegeLink's limited use of graphics means you don't need a big hard drive. And since the completed applications are printed at CollegeLink's facility, you don't have to own a fancy printer.
You will, however, need a modem if you want to transmit data directly from your PC to CollegeLink's processing facility. Otherwise, return the diskette for printing by snail mail. The software is free if you download it at CollegeLink's Web site, www. collegelink.com (or order a diskette by mail); each printed application after the first one costs $5, plus shipping. You can get a printout of the data you supplied during each CollegeLink interview. But not being able to visualize your work until applications arrive by mail is frustrating.
Apply! '97 takes a different approach, technically and financially. The graphics-rich CD-ROM requires a multimedia computer. The manufacturer, Apply Technology, recommends a Pentium-powered machine with at least 12 megabytes of RAM, so owners of older machines must pass this program by. The CD-ROM is free, thanks to a section of clickable ads.
ON-SCREEN FORMS. Apply! '97 is based on College Advisor '97 (the classroom interface and even the on-screen narrator are the same), but it dumped PR's deliciously opinionated reviews of top colleges. Instead, Apply! '97 has added on-screen applications for more than 500 schools. The onscreen forms look just like the paper ones, complete with graphics, instruction pages, and sometimes even copies of the return envelopes included in admissions packets. You type personal information in the blanks, directly on an application.
As with CollegeLink, the program remembers frequently used data such as your name and address, and it automatically places them in the appropriate blanks on subsequent applications. Essays can be written on the application page or pasted from a word processor. Apply! '97 doesn't cover all bases, however. For example, the software wouldn't allow a Washington University applicant to rank the St. Louis school's individual colleges in order of preference, as requested in the instructions. But it's great to be able to print out professional-looking applications on your laser or inkjet.
Competitor CollegeNET eschews user-installed software altogether. It lets students complete and then file applications on its Web site. The only problem is that CollegeLink's database contains applications for only about 60 schools; few are "name" colleges and many are Australian universities of little interest to most U.S. students. But if you're considering a college on its list, the service is simple to use. When students become registered users of CollegeNET, they store all their personal data on its server. (Passwords are used to protect privacy.) Once an application is complete, the service transmits it directly to the school.
Your PC can even come in handy after applications are in. Admissions committees usually won't act on an incomplete file; a missing high school transcript, for example, delays any decision. To avoid such lags, schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill allow students to check on the status of an application via the Web. Using a code assigned to assure privacy, the systems let you know whether a recommendation or an SAT score is absent--thus avoiding any missed deadlines. Too bad they can't also guarantee admission.