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LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP

School is in session once again. For many seniors, this means it's time to start applying to colleges. The only question is where.

The college visit is the most effective way to decide what school to call home. The possibilities are endless. The following 10 steps are designed to help those who soon will be making one of the most crucial decisions of their lives.

1. Make a list of schools that offer what you are looking for. When researching schools, take advantage of college books and Web sites. Sites such as review.com and collegequest.com provide detailed descriptions and comparisons of virtually every college. Remember not to limit yourself. Include schools in places you'd never thought of living before. For me this was New York City. We all surprise ourselves sometimes.

2. Further research the schools on your list. Be sure to read the freshman class profile and application requirements. Find out if the school requires SAT II tests. From a social standpoint, find out what percentage of students participate in Greek life. Also, note what sports the school offers.

3. Decide what schools to visit and make reservations. All of the research has finally paid off. Look at the calendar and decide when to visit the remaining schools on your list. Call the admissions offices and schedule an interview or information session and a tour. Most colleges list nearby hotels and provide directions to the campus on their Web sites.

4. Hit the road! While sitting in the car, you can occupy your time by thinking of questions to ask the admissions counselors. When you have a good idea, write it down. Stay focused and alert. The fun is about to begin.

5. Look at the college and surrounding community first. The evening before the information session is a great time to visit the town and campus. Beware, however, of culture shock. If the campus is located in the middle of a large city, it may seem out-of-place to those from rural habitats. A rural campus with no metropolitan area nearby may seem a bit too isolated for others. It is important to visit many different types of colleges, to determine what environment best suits you.

6. Attend an information session or interview. There is a difference between the two. Many smaller colleges offer private interviews, during which the prospective student discusses the school with an admissions counselor. Information sessions, given at larger schools, are directed toward large groups. It is important to have questions ready, regardless of the type of presentation. Also, take note of the questions others ask during information sessions. These may reveal problems for which the college has a reputation, and can be useful to ask at the next college.

7. Take a campus tour. These tours, usually given by a current student, can tell you more about the college than its appearance. The tour guide typically showcases the campus and answers questions about campus life. Many times you will be able to see a dorm room and the campus library. Find out everything you can about housing and the housing system on campus. Although housing is usually guaranteed to freshmen, it may not be for upperclassmen. No one would want to be without a room when sophomore year begins.

8. Sit in on a class. This may be impossible if visiting over the summer or between semesters, but it can be helpful. Look at how much the students participate and how the professor acts toward the students. Talk to some students in the class. Ask them if they enjoy their classes. Find out what they feel the college has to offer.

9. Expect the unexpected. Between colleges you might pass a sign for a college that was not on your list. Instead of just passing by, stop in and take a look if you have the time. If you're lucky, you might be just in time for an information session and tour. You may find the college so perfect, you might not believe you overlooked it. Do not rule out this possibility. It happened to me.

10. Apply to every college you visited. By now, you should have some idea of where you want to go, possibly even the top three choices. However, every college you visited made your list for a reason. Some colleges use the application to award scholarships. Besides, there's no harm in applying.

Now that you know what to do, it's time to get started. Even if you're not yet a senior, it's never too early to start looking. Good luck finding the college of your dreams. Have fun and see the world!

Chris Catalano is a senior at Olean High School.

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