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Wondering how to handle the host of college brochures arriving daily in your mailbox? St. Lawrence University Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Terry Cowdrey offers advice on dealing with the deluge:

They start to trickle in like the snowflakes of a mid-winter storm -- and pile up just as quickly. From late January through March, high school juniors -- and some sophomores-- begin receiving what may seem like a relentless stream of unsolicited mail, in the form of brochures, booklets and other publications, from colleges. Often, they -- and their parents -- wonder: "Why am I getting this now?" "How did they get my name?," and most important, "What am I supposed to do with these?"

Most students who take the PSAT or PLAN exam in the fall also complete an optional questionnaire about their interests and academic performance. At other schools, a national survey is administered to tenth- or eleventh-graders. In both cases, the results are available for colleges to purchase. Once colleges nationwide define the types of students they are interested in, and the types they feel are best suited for their campuses, the admissions offices buy lists of students' names and addresses based on those criteria. The lists are sent to colleges in the early winter and the colleges, in turn, send their brochures to students -- that's why you're getting them now.

Here's what students and parents need to know to help them sort through the heap and get a good start in the college search process:
- Most of the mailings that you receive at this time will require you to take some sort of action -- return a postcard, log on to a web site and enter your e-mail address -- in order to stay on that college's mailing list. Don't make the mistake of assuming that because you're on a college's mailing list now that you will stay on it through the search process. If you're even remotely interested in a school, take whatever action you need to take to stay on their list in order to learn more.

Once you're removed from a school's mailing list, it is possible to be put back on it later in the cycle, but you will have to contact the school yourself to make that happen, and you may have missed some of the communication "flow" in the meantime.

- It's human nature to focus on the materials from the schools you know something about and pay less attention to the rest. But you should be doing the reverse -- if you know a lot about a school, you probably don't need to spend much time on their publications. There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States, and you've probably heard of or know about only a few -- there may be others in that pile of "unknowns" that have just the program or setting you're looking for.

- It's common to feel overwhelmed by the number of brochures you're receiving, and it can be tempting to ignore them and put off looking through them until some later date. But because you may need to respond by a certain deadline to stay on a mailing list, you should devise a system of organizing the mailings and stick to it. It will be easier to go through a few pieces of mail once a week then a bigger pile later in the spring.

- Once you've identified the schools you're interested in, take advantage of the college fairs that are scheduled in your area in the spring. At the fairs, which are attended by representatives from many different schools, you'll be able to use your time efficiently, getting more information from places you've targeted as possibilities. Some colleges don't send representatives to college fairs; so don't be discouraged if you don't have the opportunity to meet someone from a college you are interested in. Instead, contact that college directly to get your questions answered or to ask for more information.

- Just as you should notify schools you're interested in that you wish to stay on their mailing lists, you should also notify schools that you're not interested in that you don't wish to receive further mailings. By doing this, you'll insure that you have a more manageable group of future mailings, only from the schools you want. And you will help the college use their publications more effectively by targeting other students.

- Put the publications you do receive to good use, even those from schools you have no interest in -- check to see if your high school guidance office or public library would like them.

- Remember that being on a mailing list is not a guarantee that you will be admitted to a particular school. Mailing lists are created from information volunteered by students and admissions criteria are much more specific.

By approaching the start of the college search in an organized way that works for you, you're laying the groundwork for making the rest of the process work well for you, too.

Posted: January 24, 2003