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Last week I wrote about the entertaining and interactive presentation I attended that featured Robert Franek of Princeton Review. His main message to students and parents is that the college admissions process can go from painful to pleasurable if you approach it as savvy shoppers.

While the acceptance rates tossed around from the elite schools can be intimidating, the entire college admissions process, from college search to campus visits, and even to college applications, can be managed well and can even be fun. While you frequently hear horror stories of helicopter parents nagging and students stressing out, there are just as many anecdotes of families enjoying campus visits together, feeling closer and developing a new-found mutual respect.

As part of Princeton Review's "Hopes and Dreams" survey, students are asked "What one piece of advice would you give to students about to enter the college admissions process?" One eye-opening response was "Let your parents help; they actually know something."

Franek said families need to recalibrate their thinking about college. "It's not about winning or losing; it's about finding a college that represents the right fit for a student and his or her family."

>Visit campuses

Franek is a strong proponent of campus visits as early in the process as possible. "You gotta go and kick the tires," he said. Sitting in on a class is a great way to get a grasp of the academic side of the college. You'll see how engaged students are in discussions, how accessible professors are and you'll get a feel for what life would be like as a student at that school. Colleges are generally very accommodating, as long as students request class visitations in advance.

During and after the visits, students need to ask themselves if they can see themselves there. Do they see students that look like them? Do they like the architecture and the layout of the campus, the proximity of stores, restaurants and entertainment?

I suggest doing "benchmark visits" of a large public university and a small private liberal arts college that are close to home first. Even if a student isn't interested in attending those schools, the visits provide great fodder for conversations about what does represent a good fit for them.

>What colleges look for

The admissions process, according to Franek, is a human process. Colleges are seeking to build a well-rounded class. In order to do that, they need to attract students with focused interests and talents. An award-winning debater is going to be considered more desirable than someone who helped plan the Cinco de Mayo Fiesta for the Spanish Club. There's nothing wrong with Spanish Club, but colleges want to see individuals and how they've made an impact at their school or in their community. Students need to figure out the best way for them to distinguish themselves in their extracurricular activities. Typically that means following their interests and getting involved in just a few areas and demonstrating commitment, responsibility and if possible, leadership traits.

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Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.