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Shopping for Colleges Online

Bless the Internet for taking the pain out of college-shopping. You'll be pleasantly surprised to know that practically every college and university in the United States maintains a Web site. All you have to do is log on to an on-line provider like American Online or CompuServe and type in the URL (Universal Resource Locator) or Web address to instantly call up the school's home page -- the main point of contact for the outside world.

A college's home page can be likened to a magazine's table of contents. All the information needed to decide on a school is organized under headings, such as admissions, financial aid, student activities, special programs, social events, faculty, staff, and so on. A school's major departments usually have their own contents page.

As expected, many of the large public universities have sprawling Web sites. UCLA, for example, boasts a Web site with 250 home pages and 50,000 contents pages.

While it's fun exploring college home pages -- some feature creative graphics, animation, even virtual tours of the campus and surrounding neighborhoods complete with sound -- their key advantage is providing fast answers to questions. A Hartford, Connecticut, high school senior considering Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, was concerned about the configuration of computer labs and the credentials of the faculty. In a few hours he had answers and his fears were allayed.

The comprehensive and timely information on a home page gives it a distinct edge over printed college catalogs. Catalogs are updated every six to eight months, whereas home pages are updated either monthly, biweekly, or even weekly.

Most college home pages also offer an email feature, allowing you to ask questions and get answers within hours. The best part: You can get information 24 hours a day. Visiting a college's Web site can also save you the time and money you would spend physically traveling to campuses.

Although you probably won't make a decision based solely on information gleaned from the Internet, it can help you whittle down your list of choices. If it's a down-to-the-wire toss-up between two schools, you can always get tie-breaking information by revisiting each candidate on the Internet.

Because the Internet is an emerging information medium, colleges have just begun to use their home pages as a serious recruitment tool. Initially, simple pages were put together by computer-savvy students because they were the only ones who understood HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) coding, the programming language for the Internet. Besides offering effortless information, college administrators have also discovered home pages can accelerate the application process. Many schools are testing home pages that allow students to either download an application or fill out an application on-line and send it back. Experts predict that within a few years most schools will be accepting applications this way, saving time and paperwork.

Bear in mind that college home pages vary in quality. Still, most are easy to navigate and feature fast easy links to the information you need.

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