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For many college-bound students, choosing just the right school can be even more stressful than taking the SAT exam. How do you choose, from among more than 3,500 American colleges and universities, the place where you’ll live and learn for four years?

Beyond that, how do you find the school you love — and can also afford?

Savvy students and parents should start by pinpointing what they most want and need in a college. Make your own customized list or check a few Internet sites for ideas.

Specifications for schools

Some sites, such as The Princeton Review, allow you to plug in specifications and get a computerized list of schools that match your criteria. Some factors you should consider:

School specifications
2 or 4 year school Surroundings
Academic strength Specific states or regions
Price Majors
Size Attitude/religion

Two-year or four-year school: Two-year schools, such as community colleges may offer smaller classes, professors who are better at teaching since they’re not hired to do academic research and a chance for less-than-star students to wipe out a not-so-great high school record. Financially, two-year colleges can be a bargain, too. Four-year schools might be a better choice for students who want to be surrounded by mostly A- and B-grade students; want a college with great resources, like a big library and lots of cultural and athletic activities; want a school where most students live on campus; and enjoy a college with a strong sense of community.

Academic strength: Colleges usually disclose the average SAT scores and high school grades of their incoming freshmen. Families can use these statistics to decide whether the school is academically challenging enough, or perhaps too rigorous, for their student.

Price: This information can be hard to find on a college’s Web site or in their admissions brochure, especially for private colleges. These institutions know that tuition prices tend to scare off incoming students and their families. So dig a little. Some Web sites, such as The College Board, let you search for colleges by their price tags. You can also find out which colleges in your price range offer need-based financial aid and outright monetary grants in areas such as academics, athletics and leadership skills.

Size: Is the school small or large, based both on number of students and acreage? If it’s a large school, does it offer any living/learning programs? These are like small colleges within large universities.

Surroundings: Does the student prefer a school located in or near a big city? Or would a rural area be a better fit?

Specific states or regions: Some students might want to live reasonably close to home, so they can visit high school friends or go home to do laundry. Other students may be interested in a totally new living experience — a warm climate if they’ve always lived in a snow zone or a big city if they’ve grown up in a small town. Keep in mind that travel costs during summer vacation and on breaks will vary significantly, depending on how far the student must travel to and from school. Be sure to work that into your annual college budget.

Majors: Does the student prefer a school that offers a wide range of fields of study or one that specializes in one or two high-profile programs?

Attitude/religion: Is the school known to be conservative/traditional; diverse; or liberal and/or unconventional? Is the college secular or does it have strong religious ties?

Early decision, early action

Some schools offer what are called “early decision” and “early action” programs that give students the chance to apply — and get an answer — before the regular admissions deadline.

This may be something you want to consider if you have one school that’s your top choice. The problem is that with early decision you are making a commitment to attend that school if accepted. By making that commitment, you are giving up your ability to compare financial aid packages you might be offered otherwise.

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Most schools acknowledge that you have a better chance of getting in early decision rather than regular decision, so if you think you’re on the cusp of admission to your dream school, it may make sense to apply early decision. And the whole college-decision thing is a nail-biting process, so some might think it’s worth it just to have it done with months earlier than other students.

In some cases you also have a better chance of getting in “early action,” which is similar but doesn’t require that you commit to attending if you’re accepted. “Unrestricted” early action means you can apply to other early-action schools; “single-choice” early action means you can’t.

These scenarios may benefit the college more than the student. After all, if a student applies early decision and gets admitted, there’s really no incentive for the college to offer a spectacular aid package or extra scholarships, because the student is bound to come. There is still some chance to do some negotiation, but a student isn’t in a strong position if he or she applied to the dream school and a very similar school regular decision, and used their respective financial aid packages as a negotiating point to get the best possible deal for the dream school.

In any event, keep in mind that early-action or early-decision applicants are usually highly qualified, so if you’re a less-than-stellar student, you may be hurting your chances and wasting time by applying this way.

Think twice about high-priced colleges

After you’ve narrowed your list of preferred colleges, a simple way to save money on tuition is to choose a school that isn’t overly well known and expensive to begin with.

Many of the so-called “brand-name” colleges earn their reputations from professors who do a lot of high-profile research. But research-heavy universities can sometimes end up compromising the quality of their undergraduate education. Consider, for instance, the prestigious schools that offer auditorium-sized classes taught by graduate student aides, rather than actual professors.

Another drawback of expensive schools: They leave students with big loans to repay after graduation. It might not make sense, for instance, for a student who will pursue a modest-paying social work career to pay back loans for a prestige-school education.

The bottom line: As long as students are clear about the qualities they want in a college, they can get a top-quality education without paying top dollar.

Prestige without the price

Many public colleges are actually equal to or better in quality than some of the best-known private colleges. Public schools are cheaper only because they are subsidized by our tax dollars, not because they are inferior in some way.

In fact, some public colleges actually are considered as prestigious as Ivy League schools, but are much, much cheaper. Examples include the University of Virginia, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Michigan.

Other public colleges are smaller than average, and offer a great education. Examples include Mary Washington (Va.); California Maritime Academy (Calif.); and Evergreen College (Wash.).

Additional places to get a top-quality education at a bargain price are the military service academies; honors programs within public colleges; and even Canadian colleges. Canadian schools are heavily subsidized by the Canadian government and can be a great deal even for non-Canadians.

Final step: Choose a “financial safety school”

Even if you have a handful of great schools you’re sure will accept you, it’s always smart to apply to a school that fits your needs AND that you can afford, such as a good state college. That way, if you get financial aid offers from all of your top schools and find that you still can’t afford any of them, you’ll still have a safety net.

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