Q: This summer we plan to visit colleges with our son, a rising senior and B-plus student with a learning disability. His counselor is pointing him to our community college, but he wants to go away to a four-year school that isn't a "pressure cooker." Are those college guides on Amazon.com reliable for making a list?
A: They're a good place to start. The major college guide publishers include Barron's Educational Series, College Board, Sourcebooks (e.g., "Fiske Guide to Colleges"), Peterson's and Princeton Review.
Before you invest in any of them, go to your local library or bookstore and give them a "flip-test," says Sally Reed, editor of CollegeBoundNews.com, a monthly publication on college admissions and financial aid.
"Assess their potential usefulness," she says. "Some are easy to use. Others may have information you don't need. Make sure the books are up-to-date. Librarians and major bookstores usually keep current editions on the shelves."
Each publisher offers a general guide. Some publish supplemental titles too. For example, in addition to the "Fiske Guide to Colleges," Sourcebooks publishes the "Fiske Guide to Getting Into the Right College," a book that helps students browse more than 2,000 four-year schools in the U.S.
Peterson publishes the "Four-Year Colleges" series as well as the "Scholarships, Grants and Prizes" series -- information on millions of privately funded awards available to college students.
The College Board published the "College Handbook 2015," with information on 2,200 four-year colleges and universities and 1,700 two-year community colleges and technical schools. The College Board also published the "Book of Majors 2015" to explain various majors and what graduates can do with them after graduation.
Princeton Review published the "Complete Book of Colleges, 2015 Edition" and has annual editions of "The Best 379 Colleges" and "Paying for College Without Going Broke." You might be interested in checking out its "K&W Guide to College Programs and Services for Students With Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder," which is a good resource for students who need additional support at college.
Reed recommends searching the website Colleges That Change Lives (ctcl.org) and the book by the same name (Penguin Books, 2012).
U.S. News & World Report is famous for its rankings (or infamous, depending on your perspective). Its "Best Colleges 2015" ranked schools according to different criteria and offered data on application to acceptance ratios. The U.S. Department of Education is also creating its own rankings system.
Some publishers offer digital versions, but Reed likes paperbacks because families can browse them together.
"While the ultimate decision is your son's," she says, "students benefit from family feedback in the narrowing process."
Don't overschedule college visits. Unless the colleges are very close, one a day is optimal.
"Leave time to visit the campus outside the organized tour," says Reed. "Engage students. Get a sense of the atmosphere. Encourage your son to take photos and notes and keep contact information of people you meet so he can ask questions once he returns home."
Reed advises families to keep it simple: "College visits should be fun rites of passage for families. Don't ask your son to tell you what he thinks after each visit. Let him digest all he's learning. Wait until you return home to weigh the pros and cons."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)