BEND, Ore. (CNN/Money) -
The deadline for college-bound seniors to make their final college decision is just days away. By now, these students know there is no magic formula for choosing a school.
Samuel Richardson, a high school senior in Dallas, Ore. only wishes it were that easy.
"I'm still at a pretty big loss," said Samuel last week while en route from Dartmouth in New Hampshire to the University of Chicago, just a couple of the 13 schools that accepted or wait-listed him and expect a decision this week. "It's going to take some intense soul searching."
He's in good company.
"The process is a lot more complicated than it was when I went to school 10 years ago," said Nataly Kogan, who created Students Helping Students, a series of books written and edited by college students. The latest "Choose the Right College and Get Accepted" (Prentice Hall) is due out in August.
While more students are competing for a finite number of slots, she said, colleges have ramped up their marketing efforts to attract more applicants.
College guidebooks and rankings help students fine-tune the search, but they also lead to information overload.
Finally, cost is a major consideration for most families, yet it's virtually impossible to compare the actual cost of schools until the acceptance letters and aid packages arrive -- just one month before final decisions need to be made.
After Samuel opened all his acceptance letters, his father created an elaborate spreadsheet, which graded each school according to Samuel's own criteria, projected the total cost of each school after accounting for financial aid, and then identified the schools with the most academic bang for the least buck.
The spreadsheet was a useful tool, but didn't spit out one neat answer.
"The thing you don't get looking at brochures and stats is what the school is really like," said Samuel. After visiting five schools last week he narrowed his choices to three schools – Dartmouth, Vassar and the University of Oregon honors college.
But Samuel – who's planning to major in philosophy – still has more soul searching to do.
"Students need to understand that they're doing precision guesswork," said Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy. "The end result should be that you're exited about where you land your freshman year of college."
How do you get there?
Start early, but not too early
College counselors say they see two extremes -- kids who start obsessing about college too soon and kids who put off thinking about it until the eleventh hour.
Ideally, said Thacker, kids will start putting together a list of prospective schools midway through their junior year of high school. It's enough time to investigate schools, research financial aid and gear up for the application process, but not so early that their entire high school experience is overshadowed by the college decision.
Besides, he said, students' idea of what they want in a college is going to change dramatically between the time they're high school freshmen and seniors, as it should.
Identify your ideal
Most college-bound students have it all backwards when deciding where to apply, say experts. They identify schools first and then research what characteristics are behind the brand name or impressive ranking.
A better approach is for students to first create a profile of their ideal school. Small or large? Urban or rural? Competitive or laid back? Diverse or homogeneous? "Don't worry about what the right answer should be," said Kogan.
Also, be flexible. Again, what you think you want in a school may change as you visit schools and talk to students at them. Samuel Richardson, for one, thought he wanted a school with an urban campus, but after visiting a couple of the schools realized that city life also has limitations.
What if your ideal schools seem like pie in the sky?
"We recommend applying to one or two reach schools, one or two realistic schools and one or two safety schools," said Kogan, adding that it's not uncommon for college-bound students to apply to a dozen schools.
The terms "reach" and "safety," keep in mind, are as relevant to finances as they are academics.
Look beyond the price tag
Parents, at the same time your kids are dreaming about their ideal schools, you'll want to give them a reality check about how much you've saved, what you think you can afford and whether you're willing to take on debt to pay for a dream school. "The sooner you have this conversation, the better," said Carl Buck vice president of college funding solutions for Thompon Peterson's.
That's not to say you should rule out schools because of cost. "Very seldom do parents pay the advertised price tag of a private school," said Thacker.
The federal calculation of "expected family contribution" will help you get a ballpark estimate of what your family will have to pay. But keep in mind that private schools have their own policies and formulas for handing out aid. Some award only need-based aid. Others award merit-based aid. Still others award need-based aid but base it on merit.
Before you decide, see for yourself
What's the most important factor students overlook during the college search? "The social factor is the one thing students usually say they wish they'd paid more attention to," said Kogan.
Social life? "It's a key part of the experience," said Thacker. "It's all the learning that goes on outside the classroom, sports, debate, discussions in the dorm room."
Ideally, students could visit schools before they decide where they'll apply, he said, but if students can only visit a college once – because of time or money constraints – they should wait until after the acceptance letters come in.
Plan to spend a couple of days on campus and do so while class is in session. "It's really important for parents to understand that the right choice isn't just about academics," said Kogan. "If academics is all you're getting out of the experience than you're not getting your money's worth."
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