College students and graduates are familiar with the traditional admissions process. Whether students in past years traveled hundreds of miles to explore a campus for the first time, or scheduled office hours with a college admissions counselor, the route to choosing a college oftentimes involved a lot of frustration and legwork.
Today, with technology permeating nearly every aspect of life, students and families are finding ways to stay more organized and productive throughout the process. Tools of the past, such as the three-ring binder and the notebook, are giving way to apps and mobile devices that allow students to research a school, visit a campus, and meet with admissions counselors—all while never stepping foot on school grounds.
[Discover how technology has had a positive impact in the classroom.]
As technology advances, digital tools have become more prevalent in making this life-altering process more manageable. Here are just a few of those tools available to students and parents:
1. Net price calculator: Beginning Oct. 29, each higher education institution in the United States is required to post a net price calculator on its respective college website, but many schools, such as Amherst College and Purdue University, have already posted their own calculators. These calculators will allow students and their families to determine estimated net price information—which is the college sticker price minus discounts and grant aid—based on each student's individual circumstance.
[Read more about using an aid calculator.]
According to Bill Wells, director of financial aid at Wake Forest University, these tools will provide some clarity for families questioning their ability to afford a particular school. "Before the requirement, we had links [on our school's website] to various expected family contribution estimators," Wells says. "But what those tools did not do was actually link the calculation to the specific criteria that each particular school uses in measuring the family's ability to pay."
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, though, cautions families to take into account the accuracy of the tool. "I would characterize it more as telling you whether or not the college is in the right ballpark, [but] these calculators could be off by thousands of dollars."
[Get expert tips and advice on how to pay for college.]
2. U.S. News My Fit: Experts advise students looking for their best college fit to visit schools in person to get a real feel of the environment. But, with myriad college options, students may feel overwhelmed narrowing their choices. Acknowledging these frustrations, U.S.News & World Report has developed a tool that allows students to find colleges that fit their specifications.
Using data points such as intended major, undergraduate enrollment, and Greek life preferences, students can narrow their options based on the size, makeup, and academic offerings of a particular school. Students can also enter their high school GPA and standardized test scores to determine how they compare academically to current students of the school, based upon data provided by the colleges and universities in a 2010 survey by U.S. News.
After entering his or her data, a user can browse college profile pages among the Best Colleges section to see whether a certain school is likely to be a good fit. In order to access the My Fit tool, a user must have access to the U.S. News College Compass.
3. Evernote: Though the tool was not designed specifically for the college admissions process, Evernote allows students and parents to produce and organize their notes, opinions, and experiences in one place. This free app, which is available on nearly every platform, gives users the ability to archive and access their college search progress anywhere in the world.
"It's vital that students don't spend any time during their senior year idle when it comes to the college admissions process," says Eric Berg, vice president for enrollment at the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota. "And programs like [Evernote] only help. A modern-day student who says, 'I don't have any tools to be organized' hasn't looked."
4. Virtual tours: For most current college students and graduates, getting a feel for a college was tedious and sometimes costly. Today, much of this work can be done from home, says Dave Kerpen, author of the New York Times bestselling book Likeable Social Media. "Five years ago, in order to get to know a college, you'd have to go on a tour," Kerpen says. "Now, you can go on a virtual tour of basically any college, any time."
[Find more tools that help students visit college campuses from home.]
Virtual tour sites such as eCampusTours and YourCampus360 allow students to see a campus from the convenience of the couch. Users can access more than a thousand virtual tours between these two sites, utilizing 360-degree functionality—at no cost. While the virtual tours may help students narrow their list of colleges, they shouldn't make their final decision without a physical visit, says Berg.
5. Skype: The free video chat service, Skype, is successful at connecting people from around the globe. The use of this service is slowly being adopted by admissions offices across the country in order to connect with prospective students that can't make the long trip in for an initial visit.
"The opportunity for programs like Skype, where you have immediate and prolonged video interaction with schools, is almost as good as sitting in the office of an admissions counselor," Berg says. "Skype provides instant gratification [for students]."
6. Facebook: With more than 750 million users on the social network, Facebook is the unquestioned leader in its field, and colleges across the country are feeling the pressure to provide a voice on the platform. This gives students and parents the advantage when researching the culture of a school, says Kerpen. "Facebook allows unprecedented access, insider's access, to what's going on at colleges," he notes. "For students and parents, it's a major opportunity to really see what's going on, [and] what students and alumni are talking about."
[Read about colleges bringing campuses to Facebook.]
7. Twitter: The search function of Twitter is a powerful tool to observe conversations, Kerpen says. "It allows students to find out what's being said right now about a particular college."
Whereas a college or university may be able to filter the discussions taking place on its Facebook page, it cannot control the conversation on Twitter. Kerpen suggests students and parents use Twitter to connect with others who have unfiltered information about a school. "People you know and people you know of are a lot more trustworthy than a [college] brochure," Kerpen says. "Leverage the opportunity to find out what real people are saying."
Do you have a favorite tool for the college search? Visit our Best Colleges Facebook page and share with us.