Saturday, October 11, 2003

Kim Russo walks the paths at the University of Maryland at College Park on a sunny, autumn day, but Kim is not a student here — yet. She is a senior in high school in New Hope, Pa., touring this university as part of a busy college-selection schedule this fall.

Kim, 17, has surfed the Internet to scope out the Web sites of potential colleges. She attended a college fair at her high school. She has narrowed her choices to schools within three hours of her home. She and her father, Dr. Gus Russo, have already checked out Lehigh University and the University of Delaware. They are also planning to visit Georgetown University and Penn State.

It’s part of a process that began more than a year ago and likely won’t be wrapped up until spring. Selecting a college takes research, time and action. It’s a process that has changed in the years since Kim’s father enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh site unseen.

“We’re in the process of the puzzle coming together,” says Dr. Russo, an orthodontist. “Kim’s search has evolved from New York and Boston to schools closer to our area. When I was young, we didn’t do all this visiting, but I think it is great.”

The process of selecting a college has, in fact, changed a great deal, says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a Virginia-based professional organization for high school and college guidance and admissions counselors.

There are costly consultants who can help a student narrow his choices, write a fabulous essay and coach him toward better SAT scores. There are Web sites offering tours of campuses. There are videos of campuses that can be shipped to your home. Students can apply online, saving time and postage. There are tour companies that will take high school students on bus trips to look at a dozen colleges at a time.

“There are some great electronic resources out there,” Mr. Hawkins says. “Kids have so much access now, and it is so much easier to apply. But still, even with all these resources, choosing a college still comes down to a brick-and-mortar exercise. There are real concerns and questions that can’t be answered in a Web site.”

Mr. Hawkins and many others in the college admissions industry say that resources such as Web sites and videos are wonderful starting points but that, in the end, nothing beats a personal visit. The Art and Science Group, a Baltimore college marketing consulting business, surveyed 500 high school students last year and found that 65 percent of them said a campus visit was the most influential source when choosing a college.

In other words, walking the paths, talking to students, even eating the cafeteria food, can be the deciding factor between College A and University B.

Kim is figuring that out. At Delaware, she liked the buildings and thought the people were friendly. At Lehigh, the students seemed “serious,” and there were too many hills to climb on campus, she says. Still, she is waiting for the intangible feeling that her sister, Krista, got when she visited James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.

“My older daughter is a senior at James Madison,” Dr. Russo says. “She walked onto that campus four years ago and knew it was for her. It is great when that happens.”

Savvy students

Teenagers are educated consumers when it comes to music and fashion. They are also savvy shoppers when it comes to colleges, Mr. Hawkins says. Just as Nike and Tommy Hilfiger are the “right” names to have in the closet, teens know that Duke, Harvard and Stanford are the status names for diplomas.

However, only the top students will have the choice of attending those schools. That leaves the other schools searching for their recruiting hook, he says.

“Colleges really count on the branding issue,” Mr. Hawkins says. “The students know the best places to go. Seventy-six percent of colleges last year underwent a public marketing overhaul. For schools that are a hard sell, they are the ones that need to be the most aggressive.”

Still, every school has something to highlight. Small campus or big? Religious or nonsectarian? Single-sex or coed? State school or private? Rural or urban?

Wray Blair, associate director of admission at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., was one of 150 or so admissions representatives at the Loudoun County Public School system’s annual college fair last month. He happily answered questions about what Frostburg State had to offer.

“I play up the location of our campus,” Mr. Blair says of Frostburg’s rural location in western Maryland, “but I know that mountains and skiing will appeal to some students and not to others. I also point out what majors and educational programs we have, and how our class sizes are small. A lot of people really like our campus.”

Mr. Blair has worked in admissions for 18 years. His job has changed tremendously during that time, he says. By the time he visits a high school or a college fair, prospective students have already learned the basics via the Internet or visiting friends on campus.

“I almost never get, ‘I don’t know a thing about your school,’” he says. “They can apply online and e-mail us with questions. A lot of us in admissions start our day by answering e-mails.

The ease of travel and the fact that more students are attending college has also influenced the way schools reach out to potential students, says Robert Rummerfield, a former assistant director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the founder of College Visits Inc., a tour company.

“The number of schools a student applies to has changed,” Mr. Rummerfield says. “It used to be you applied to about three schools, including a reach and a safety school. Now, the average number is seven, and the competition has increased dramatically. That has meant glitzier promotion pieces and admissions departments that are media savvy. You can reach out to the East Coast, West Coast and students who are looking for diverse environment that is not an extension of their high school.”

Visiting by bus, by video

Mr. Rummerfield knows that parents are busy and that time and money can restrict travel. He started Campus Visits in 1991 to offer teens a way to get to a number of schools in one intensive barnstorming tour. Some of the tours include tours of up to a dozen schools.

These trips don’t come cheaply, though. Most cost upward of $1,000, which includes lodging, some meals and side trips to historic sites in Boston or Washington. Mr. Rummerfield says that when a parent is looking at spending $100,000 on college, his price tag seems reasonable.

“I think tours are important because this is such an expensive decision,” he says. “You wouldn’t buy a car or a house without checking it out. These tours are meant to get kids on campus, to open doors and get contact names. Once accepted, then they can visit as a family.”

Cliff Kramon, an independent college adviser in Tenafly, N.J., has also started a business that enables families to see many schools at time. His company, Collegiate Choice, offers video tours of hundreds of schools that can be ordered for $15 each. The videos are not slick productions made by the schools. Rather, they are filmed by Mr. Kramon and his staff as raw footage of the typical tour one would get if they visited the campus.

“Nothing beats going in person,” Mr. Kramon says, “but watching videos is a good starting point. We try to address the social side of the school. If you hear a college has 2,000 students, for instance, you might be picturing it as one building. A video tour can give you an idea of whether this school is right for you. We can show you everything you would have seen if you had gone in person.”

What a video can’t do, however, is give the sensory input one gets from a personal visit. Becca Lobel, a junior at the University of Maryland, remembers the first time she came to College Park.

“I saw this campus on a rainy, disgusting day,” says Miss Lobel, who is from Albany, N.Y., “but I knew that McKeldin Mall on a sunny day would look to me like ‘college.’”

Miss Lobel now works as a volunteer student tour guide for the university. She and fellow student David Krieger are showing Kim and her father around. They are tasting chocolate cookies in the South Dining Commons; rubbing the nose of Testudo, the school’s Terrapin mascot statue (for luck); and visiting a dorm room.

Kim is now getting an idea of how much closet space she could have, how far the dorms will be from freshman classes, whether she can have a car on campus and when sorority rush will take place.

Dr. Russo, meanwhile, has questions of his own. Can they register for classes online? Are the dorms air conditioned? What banks are on campus? How is the security?

The tour guides stop in front of one of the many blue kiosks on campus that feature security phones, lights and security cameras. The guides tell the dad about campus escorts and the students’ knowledge not to walk home alone.

“These are things that dads of daughters need to know,” Dr. Russo says.

More info:

Books —

m”Smart Parents Guide to College: The 10 Most Important Factors for Students and Parents When Choosing a College,” by Ernest L. Boyer and Paul Boyer, Peterson’s, 1996. This book takes a look at areas parents and students should keep in mind when looking at colleges.

m”The Truth About Getting In,” by Katherine Cohen, Ph.D., Hyperion, 2002. This book, by a New York-based college consultant, has inside tips and essay ideas.

• “Visiting College Campuses,” by Janet Spencer, et al., Princeton Review, 1999. This book offers detailed profiles of 250 schools, as well as state maps, travel information, hotel listings and outlines of school policies.

• Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” by Sally Rubenstone, Peterson’s, 2002. This humorous book has tips for surviving the college admissions process.

• “Road Scholar: An Investigative Journal for the College Bound Student,” by Risa Nye, No Flak Press, 1996. This journal is a good place for students to organize thoughts and observations about each visit.

Associations —

mNational Association for College Admission Counseling, 1631 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314. Phone: 703/836-2222. Web site: This professional organization for admissions representatives has information to guide students through the college search process, including what to look for in a college visit, how to make the most out of a college fair, and how to use the Internet when looking at colleges.

• College Board, 45 Columbus Ave., New York, N.Y. 10023-6992. Phone: 212/713-8000. Web site: This national nonprofit group can help match students with colleges that fit their interests and help compare college costs and programs. Visitors to the Web site can also apply to schools and locate an SAT prep course online.

Online —

mAt Super College (, a site founded by admissions book authors Gen S. Tanabe and Kelly Y. Tanabe, there are several information pages about the admissions and financial aid process.

mAt, a site sponsored by Edfinancial Services, visitors can take video virtual tours of many colleges and universities.

mOn, the site of College Visits Inc., a tour group company, there is information about tours for students.

mAt, a site run by independent college counselor Cliff Kramon, prospective students can order video tours of college campuses.

mThe Web site for the Princeton Review (, the company that publishes numerous college guides and test prep books, features a “counselor-o-matic” page, where visitors can plug in information to find a good school match. They can also apply to schools directly from this site, as well as get information about financial aid and essay tips.

Upcoming local events —

Fall is high season for admissions representatives to visit high schools. Check with your school’s guidance office to see who is scheduled to visit soon. There are also two big college fairs this fall:

• Greater Washington D.C. National College Fair will take place at the Washington Convention Center on Nov. 13 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The fair is sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Web site:

mFairfax County Public School’s annual college fair will take place Oct. 19 at Fair Oaks Mall from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Web site:

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