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A How-to Guide For Choosing A College

Confused about choosing a college? Kentucky
comprehensive “College Guide” provides the essential tools
for students and their families-advice from parents, students, and college advisors,
a Web resource listing, and a guide to Kentucky colleges

Fifty percent of all college freshmen drop out,
flunk out, or transfer after one year in college.

Behind that sobering statistic lies the most important,
yet frequently neglected, part of the college application process-selecting
the right school. Test scores, essays, and financial aid are as important as
ever. But as crucial as they are, they may not be the key to a successful college
experience. Instead, it is the proper match between college and student that
often spells success or failure, according to those who know-college admissions
counselors, parents, and students.

This guide is designed to help prospective college
students and their families begin the process of making that match. Thanks to
the Internet, there is a wealth of information available to help you succeed
in the process, and we’ve included a list of Web sites that are particularly
useful. You’ll also find a list of Kentucky colleges and schools and some essential
information about each, including phone numbers for the admissions offices.

But if you choose to use only two pieces of advice
from this article, they should be these: start early, and focus on your individual
needs and desires.

High school preparation

According to the admissions counselors, starting
early means high school freshmen should be thinking about their aptitudes and
possible career choices, and then begin narrowing those choices as sophomores.
As juniors, students should start making a list of schools they are interested
in and take the ACT and/or SAT for the first time.

During high school, course selection is also crucial.
Take the approved Kentucky precollege curriculum. Fit in as much math and science
as possible, as well as courses that require writing. Most importantly, challenge
yourself. The difficulty of your courses will matter, particularly if you are
thinking about a private college.

What colleges look for

“Schools, public and private, place heavy
weight on the student’s grade point average (GPA),” says Sarah Coen, director
of admissions for Transylvania University, a private, nationally known college
in Lexington. “When we receive an application, we make a recalculation
of the student’s high school GPA. We base the score on college prep courses,
taking out the grades for physical education, art, etc. We want to see a demanding
curriculum because the difficulty of the curriculum is an important indicator
of success. It has been shown repeatedly that a student’s GPA is a better predictor
of success than their test scores.”

Let the search begin

The application process then begins in earnest
in the summer between the junior and senior years. Start gathering information,
forms, and materials during this time; as a senior, you can concentrate on taking
the ACT and/or SAT a second time, writing essays, completing financial aid information
and applications, and most of all, visiting the schools you are interested in.

A match made in person

The visit is perhaps one of the last things a
prospective student will do when considering a school, but we begin here because
those in the know say this is the single biggest factor in making a good choice.
If ideal romantic matches are made in heaven, college matches are made during
an on-site visit.

“At Transylvania we have a lot of overnight
visitors,” Coen says. “Current students will tell you that is the
most important thing in choosing the right school. If they don’t visit, they
can’t get a flavor for what campus life is like. This is especially true now
that students get so much information off the Web. It is a great place to start,
but not enough information to base a decision on that will determine where you
spend the next four years of your life.”

Paul Radke, director of school relations at Murray
State University (MSU) in western Kentucky, agrees.

“Many students don’t search out colleges that
are right for them,” Radke says. “They look at schools based on where
their friends are applying, schools that have a good basketball team, or party
schools, and so forth. They listen to other people instead of doing research-sitting
down and spending time to determine what they want in their college education
and then explore colleges with those characteristics.”

Radke’s basic list of items to consider:

  • Your goals
  • Your academic interests
  • Size of the college
  • Distance from home
  • Cost
  • Campus life, particularly the extracurricular activities available
  • College’s affiliations, if any
  • College’s national ranking
  • College’s retention and graduation rates

“Find colleges that fit your profile and then
do some homework, some research,” he says. “Go to their Web sites,
request information, and look them up in college guidebooks. Then visit, visit,
visit. You can read four-color brochures and listen to guys like me who are
paid for telling you about the school, but that’s not what counts. You wouldn’t
buy a car without test-driving it, but you would be surprised how many students
come to a school without ever setting foot on campus. It’s why 50 percent leave
or flunk out.”

Homework still counts

That’s not likely to happen to Trish Ruckriegel,
a senior at Butler Traditional High School in Louisville. Trish and her father,
Tony, have devised a system to ensure that she winds up at the right school
to help her fulfill her dream of being a pharmacist.

Father and daughter have divided up duties. Trish
is responsible for writing the required essays and keeping up with her current
studies, part-time job, and extracurricular activities. Tony, meanwhile, has
developed a spreadsheet to keep up with his job as head of research. He tracks
all the items needed for applications and financial aid information. He also
researches scholarship possibilities, a full-time job in itself.

Their goal is for Trish to have at least three options.
Ideally, she will go to her ultimate choice, regardless of cost or admissions
standards. If that doesn’t work out, she will have a more realistic choice but
one that clearly meets her educational goals and objectives. And if that doesn’t
work, choice three will still be a good fit for her.

“This process takes a lot of time,” Tony
admits, adding that he believes parents must play an active role. “Even
the best of high school seniors can’t go through all this on their own. There
is a lot to pursue here.”

Ruckriegel highly recommends a publication from
the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority called Getting In.
The father/daughter team also has a host of other suggestions, most of them
echoed by the admissions counselors. Here are a few of them:

  • Check your high school transcript to make sure you have the proper credits.
  • Take both the ACT and the SAT. Each test is different, and depending on
    the student’s strengths and weaknesses, you may score better on one than the
  • Take the entrance tests more than once.
  • Take leadership roles in high school. Although not a prerequisite, most
    forms ask for such information and give it weight.
  • Use the local library. The Internet includes lot of information but, particularly
    when it comes to scholarships, there are many helpful books.
  • Develop priorities, and take an organized approach. A spreadsheet helps
    you keep track of what needs to be done and when. Otherwise, you may miss
    opportunities just by missing deadlines.
  • Keep a file of essays you write during high school. Some colleges don’t
    require a specific topic, and this could keep you from having to write yet
    another essay.
  • Keep copies of everything you submit.
  • Be careful of online mail solicitations that offer to pursue scholarships
    for you. They can’t guarantee results.

Back in Lexington, Coen points out that this is
a learning process for everyone, particularly if the student is a first-generation
college student-often the case in Kentucky since only 20 percent of Kentuckians
have a college education.

“This is one of the biggest financial investments
parents make in their son or daughter,” Coen notes. “It is worth the
investment of time to make the right choice.”

Kentucky Living College WEB Guide

Basic information

Compare 1,000 schools, get advice on the entire application process. Also
a user-friendly planner

Lists college Web pages by state

Comprehensive tool with lots of information on exploring majors and
careers. Tool for developing a life plan

Different ways to search for colleges-location, major, etc. Experts to
answer questions about admissions and financial aid

An independent comparison of American colleges

The 1998 rankings of America’s Best Colleges as taken from the U.S.
News and World Report

Ask questions online about admissions and financial aid. Download
a common application. Request college information and applications

Information on choosing a school, finding financial aid, and planning
a career

College and career planning. Also a practice SAT online

Web site of the American Council on Education

Portal that includes a college search, college recruiting, virtual
bookstore, scholarships

Array of information on getting into college divided by categories:
undergraduate, business, international, and graduate schools

Advice and one-on-one counseling from college admissions and financial
aid experts over the Internet

Specific sites for Kentucky

Links to in-depth information on all independent colleges and universities
in Kentucky, tips on paying for college, and related sites

Links to information on all state universities and colleges in Kentucky
and news about the Council on Post-Secondary Education

Links and information on all technical and community colleges in Kentucky
and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System

KHEAA offers several financial aid plans for Kentucky residents. Information
on these and more

Financial Aid

A guide through the financial aid process. Free scholarship searches.
Information on career planning

Financial aid basics, free online scholarship search, loan repayment

Ask questions online about admissions and financial aid. Download
a common application. Request college information and applications

Speed up the financial aid process by filing your FAFSA online

In conjunction with the National Association of Student Financial Aid
Administrators. Comprehensive site on choosing a college and obtaining
financial aid


Advice and information about career selection

Detailed career descriptions


Basic information about the ACT test, sample questions, and online

Suggestions on taking standardized tests. Information on career planning

Information on taking the SAT, online SAT registration, sample questions,
and research on careers and colleges

Sign up for their e-mail newsletter

What the SAT is like, including sample questions

Find people in your area to help you improve your test-taking skills

Specialized Sites

Regulations and requirements for athletic scholarships and participation

Designed for students going back to college. Information on internships,
scholarships, online degree programs, and more

Dubbed the “high school Internet site.” Information on activities,
sports, colleges and careers, and high schools

For a chart listing Kentucky colleges, enrollment,
tuition and room and board costs, and their programs of distinction, click
to download the pdf file.

To be able to read the chart you will need Adobe
Acrobat Reader software. If you do not have Adobe Acrobat Reader click
to download the software.

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