WHEN MY SON was looking at colleges, my husband suggested that he choose one with a football team ranked in the Top 20.
Quarterback Michael Vick was playing for Virginia Tech at the time, so that school was very high on our list of prospective colleges.
Now my daughter is looking at colleges, and she has set her own criteria: "small, close and with a beach."
A friend's son was smitten with his eventual college choice, he said, when he realized he could ride his bike on campus. As if there is a college in the United States where riding a bike is discouraged.
There are as many dumb reasons for choosing a college as there are kids -- and parents -- doing the choosing.
And it is an irony of the college admissions process that, as it has become increasingly competitive, students and their parents have become increasingly bad at it.
Instead of a little introspection and a little research, high school juniors and seniors engage in a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off frenzy of test-taking and resume padding.
Too often, students wake up much the way Dorothy did -- having landed in a very nice place but with no idea why, or what they are supposed to do next.
William Caskey, a former admissions officer at Brown University, and his colleagues founded ConnectEdu to help these students, based on the premise that Harvard might not be the right place for you, even if you can get in.
The help they offer in the college application process has less to do with getting a leg up on the competition than it does with figuring out what you might like to do for a living and what school might help you accomplish that.
"I left Brown because I was finding that this process had grown increasingly frantic over the last few years, because there are more kids choosing to go to college and they are applying to more colleges," Caskey said from his Providence, R.I., office.
He joined with Joyce Reed, a longtime dean at Brown, who saw students at the other end of the process: "She saw kids arriving who didn't know what to do when they got there.
"They didn't know how to work, how to motivate themselves, what was expected of them. They got there and suddenly they were frozen."
How can a process that is so competitive produce such a lousy result?
"The kids were so focused on getting in, they didn't know what they were getting into. They'd wake up and say, 'Hey, this isn't the right fit.' "
ConnectEdu offers the kind of college application assistance that is expected from this booming service industry, but with an added feature.
It puts the high school kids in touch with actual college kids who will mentor them in weekly online chats for the entire process.
The college mentors offer real-time, on-the-ground advice, and the high school kids listen because they believe them.
"They get a lot of " 'Here's what I wish I had known' from the college kids," says Caskey.
College application consultants can charge tens of thousands of dollars by assuring parents that a junior will have his choice of Ivy Leagues. Connect-Edu (www.connectedu.net) charges $3,500 for its services, which begin in the junior year.
In business for a year now, ConnectEdu considers its efforts successful, not when the admissions letters go out in April, but perhaps when the student finishes his first semester and can say, "This feels like the right place."
But Caskey had seen enough from his admissions desk at Brown to offer some free advice to anxious families.
"Go deep, not wide," he tells students. They should conduct a kind of internal inventory of their strengths and their interests and spend time talking to adults in the field about what kind of a career they can make out of those things.
Instead of spending the summer working at the mall, he advises, students should seek internships or volunteer positions that will help them further explore their interests.
Clear the decks for senior year, he adds. Do as much of the application paperwork and essay-writing during the summer as you can. Don't sign up for as many advanced courses, drop the marginal sport or the club membership. Give yourself time to think.
Do the research to find the schools that fit your interests and your academic strengths, as well as your other criteria, such as, "small, close and near a beach," or "Top 20 football team."
Caskey also tells students to check out the colleges and universities nearby before taking that four-state, spring-break road trip.
"You might not want to go to any of these schools, but they give you a basis for comparing the other schools you will see."
The goal is coming up with a list of half a dozen schools that fit your academic strengths, your nascent career interests and your personality.
By fall of senior year, it is time to spend an overnight or a weekend on several campuses. Talk to the students about their workload and what is expected.
Caskey is right. Real-life college students have it all over high school guidance counselors -- and even pricey advisers. They are an applicant's most important source of the information that an hourlong campus tour with your parents won't provide.
When you get your acceptance letters in April, Caskey says, "The goal is to not to get into the college, but to have two or three schools that you know are going to be a good fit."
But before deciding, ask around to see if they will let you ride your bike.