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The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out Countdown #6: The College Trip - How To Let The Schools Know You Care

Posted: 11/23/09 09:15 AM ET

The most important five minutes of a college tour are the ones where you pick up your registration I.D. or sign in, confirming that you have shown up in person. What you learn afterwards may help you decide if the school is right for you, but what the school learns from the sign-in list will help them decide if you're right for them.

Here's why: Thanks to the Common Application, lots more seniors are filing lots more applications, which makes hash out of the formulas schools used to use to figure out who was likely to attend. Schools prefer to accept students who are going to accept them. One way to cut the herd is to see who cares enough to visit, and schools rely on this marker even though it's a flawed indicator: A stay-at-home candidate may be just as enthusiastic but less wealthy than the candidate who's doing the northeastern loop. No matter. It counts.

In case you've been too busy balancing your Swiss bank accounts to notice, not everyone feels like popping for a week of planes and trains and rented automobiles, to say nothing of hotels, just to hear admissions officers confirm that it's getting more difficult and more expensive to get into school, and to swear that almost every member of the previous year's incoming class was a straight-A student.

Enter Collegiate Choice -- along with about a zillion competitors, but they at least seem to have a sense of humor, as evidenced by their "Items to Make You Smile" feature - which provides video tours of schools across the country. Collegiate Choice charges $15 per plus shipping for a dvd, so you can pop it in the flat-screen instead of having to crowd around the computer for a digital feed.

Yes, you miss the personal contact with admissions officials, and yes, you miss that sign-in sheet, but you also miss the plump credit-card bill and the chilling experience of walking around campus with other parents and seniors interested in you only as a potential obstacle to their happiness. Think of the worst party you ever attended, double it, and you have a sense of the camaraderie generated by a dozen families jockeying for the attentions of a tour guide who has absolutely no influence on the application process.

Collegiate Choice makes the lack of discretionary funds or nerve sound like a smart decision, and even provides strategies to compensate for the un-tour, like having a senior start an email dialogue with an admissions official at a favorite school. Still, plenty of us will continue to show up in person, curious, eager, desperately insecure, or all three.

There are two camps when it comes to college tour tactics. The first wave of college tourists hit the streets as early as spring of sophomore year, and certainly no later than spring of junior year. They tour the way a reasonable consumer makes a big purchase - they window shop, they compare cost and quality, they edit down their options. They prioritize, they delete, and they don't see it as wasteful to visit schools that don't make the cut. Knowing what they want involves knowing what they don't - and schools that do make the cut notice and appreciate those repeat visits.

If your senior is finishing up those apps and you haven't left for the airport yet, you're a member of the minority faction, families that wait until their senior is ready to apply - or has applied - before they visit the likeliest suspects, feeling very smug about all the money and time they've saved, smug enough, in fact, not to worry that they only sign in once.

But wait: Maybe you haven't left yet because you're having commitment issues; maybe the object of all your aspirations just can't figure out where he or she wants to apply, even though deadline season is upon us, even though their Common App is ready to launch along with all the supplemental apps from, say, two dozen schools.

The world of college entrepreneurs has an answer for that one, too, one that promises even at this late date to help your candidate make the right match.

The people who put together Wisechoice.com seem to have embraced eHarmony more than the Fiske Guide as their model: If traditional guide books talk about what a senior has to do to get into a dream college, wisechoice.com figures out which colleges a particular senior ought to be dreaming about.

Next: College Freak-Out Countdown #7: Down to the Wire - Are You Tired of Answering All Those Questions?

Karen Stabiner's novel about college admissions, Getting In, will be published in March. Visit www.karenstabiner.com or write to her at kstabiner@gmail.com.