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Originally published October 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 3:10 PM

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Rating the online college-search tools

With so many high-school counseling offices overburdened, many families turn to a growing number of outside services for help navigating...

With so many high-school counseling offices overburdened, many families turn to a growing number of outside services for help navigating the increasingly complex and competitive admissions process. These range from spendy private consultants to moderately priced or free Web search engines and Web sites that suggest "right fit" colleges and/or predict a student's chances of getting in.

Since the Monson family of Shoreline used a private consultant, we asked senior Kelsey Monson to check out some of the online services and report their results. Here's what she found:

Private consultant — varies; $1,500 basic package typical Some charge by the hour ($70-$150); most offer packages that may include selecting high-school classes, suggesting colleges, tracking and reviewing applications and editing essays.

Most are members of Independent Educational Consultants Association or National Association for College Admission Counseling, which require visits to at least 50 colleges (www.educationalconsulting.org/ and www.nacacnet.org).

They're criticized for providing an unfair advantage for the better-off, but the number of college-bound students using them keeps climbing: latest figure, 9 percent. Professionals typically offer free counseling to one or two low-income students each year as part of their ethics code (if interested, ask one for an application).

Results: After giving Kelsey a survey and conducting an in-depth interview, Kelsey's counselor recommended 20 colleges and universities to consider.

Comments: "It's a lot easier to talk to a counselor than it is with your parents," Kelsey says. "She took the time to get to know me as a person and really listened to me — and I think that shows in the schools she suggested for me."

Destination U $199.95

www.destination-u.com Drawing on stats gathered about 18,000 college students, a 17-year college counseling veteran designed this system to create a personalized list of colleges after users complete an online interview.

Results: Of the 18 schools it turned up in Kelsey's first search, two-thirds matched schools recommended by a private counselor. The site was a bit more optimistic about her admissions chances at certain schools than her counselor was (called some "likely" that the counselor labeled "target," meaning "in her zone."). Schools were filtered out with new ones added during revised searches.

Comments: "I strongly recommend it for people who don't have enough time or money to visit a private counselor," Kelsey says. "When I screwed up on one answer, their customer service called me back within a half-hour and walked me through it on the phone without making me feel dumb. I was able to finish the survey within 45 minutes — and I can go back and update it any time I want."

Downsides: "It doesn't care about my personal feelings, so it included schools I don't want to consider. Some of the questions are too ambiguous. It makes you choose between describing yourself as a star athlete or nothing. But what if you're good at a sport — just not scholarship material?"

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College Data — Free

www.CollegeData.com Free mega-service site for students and parents. Enter a student's GPA, extracurriculars, test scores and honors classes, and its College Admission Tracker calculates admissions odds ("it's a reach," "a maybe" or a "good bet") for almost any school in the country.

Results: Likelihood of getting in to five preference colleges matched what a private college counselor predicted, almost to a T.

Comments: "It has a lot of other cool stuff here, including tips on managing money, time and life in college — plus "College Buzz" — profiles of a diverse group of freshmen who describe their "road to college" from high school to freshman year.

One downside: "There aren't enough match questions" to be helpful picking schools. All they want to know is whether you like big or small schools, how much you can afford and what part of the country you'll consider."

Counselor-O-Matic — Free

www.princetonreview.com/college/research/advsearch/match.aspPrinceton Review search engine combines a student's grades and extracurriculars, and compares them against personal preferences (private versus public, East versus West coast, expected major, etc.) to kick out a list of possible colleges.

Results: A list of almost 70 schools, including many of those the counselor also picked, but "some that made no sense" the first time through the screening (but not the UW).

Comments: "I wouldn't use this as my only college search system, but it's free and you can answer all the questions in about 20 minutes," Kelsey says. "It crunches information really fast, plus it provides direct links to the colleges' Web sites and profiles from Princeton Review."

Downside: "If you're not really picky when you answer the profile questions, it will give you a really broad list — a bit too many. It's not nearly as accurate as working with a live counselor."

Naviance — Free if your school subscribes

www.naviance.com A great tool for personalized college and scholarship research, planning and application tracking; also allows you to see how your grades and scores compare to those of grads from your school attending your targeted colleges. Accessed by a school portal or via a school-based account only if your school subscribes; about 30 Puget Sound high schools do, including Garfield High, Eastside Catholic and Lakeside schools, at a cost of about $2,575 per year, often paid for by PTSA or other parent groups.

Comments: "If we had Naviance at our school," says Shorecrest student Kelsey, "a lot of people wouldn't turn to other services."

Thick Envelope — $8-$90

www.thickenvelope.com Search engine created by Harvard grads says it rates likelihood of getting into a selection of top schools (covers University of Washington) by tapping into its knowledge of what specific schools weigh more heavily — such as teacher recommendations, community service, grades, test scores — compared to the student's qualifications. Pay for one ($8) up to 100 schools ($90).

Comments: "It takes only 10 minutes and it just might tell you if you're delusional about getting in a dream school," Kelsey says. But, "It doesn't look at you as a whole person, just what you look like on your transcript."

College Confidential (www.collegeconfidential.com) — $89-$3,600-plus

For an $89 starter fee, it gives you a general evaluation of how competitive you are for your list of potential colleges, separating them into "far reach," "reach," "realistic" and "safe," and suggests how you can sharpen your competitiveness (such as retooling an essay; it asks for a sample). But it can a la carte you up to $3,600-plus if you add more services (including its notorious $15,000 Ivy Guaranteed Admissions Program which, if it accepts you into the program, guarantees admittance to one of your top two college choices, or your money back).

Comments: "Other services offer more for less money," says Kelsey.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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