The college-search season is pretty much over for high school seniors. The mouse has been passed to juniors, whose turn it is to find a school.

Yes, the mouse. Every year, a higher percentage of students turns first to the Internet to see what the schools have to offer.

In a survey last year of 500 higher-ability students, 78 percent had visited individual college Web sites, according to Art & Science Group (ASG), a college marketing consultant in Baltimore. That compares with 58 percent in 1997 and just 4 percent in 1996.

The colleges didn't expect the Internet hordes so soon. They're scrambling to put their best Web foot forward and deal with a rising tide of e-mailed questions and requests.

For students, the Web is a fast, free way of getting a feel for different kinds of colleges and universities. You can reach beyond local and brand-name schools to find interesting places you otherwise might not have thought of. Use the Web to:

* Take a college tour. Most schools offer online view books, stocked with color photos of the campus at its best, or short recruiting videos. A few give video tours, where a camera follows a campus guide from place to place.

You might even get a 360-degree view of the campus, from various spots. Duke University's virtual tour provides 10 panoramic scenes.

Some schools sponsor a virtual open house. You join a live chat with students, faculty members and admissions officers.

This spring, the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University did two live video presentations. Prospective students heard about the curriculum, saw photos of the campus and business school, and could put questions to faculty and admissions officers.

Web tours give you a feel for faraway schools that might be too expensive to visit. And they narrow your choice among the schools within traveling range. For an online index of what's available, go to

Warning: If your modem is slow, clicking through Web tours will take a while. You might prefer the traditional view book, with photos in picture-album form. You can usually order one online.

Collegiate Choice ( or 201-871-0098) sells taped walking tours of some 300 colleges, made by college consultants who follow a student guide on a real trip. The videos last for up to an hour and include the guide's answers to questions about college life. Cost: $15 each. But you may find that the free Web tours are enough.

* Gather data. You can check the school's list price, student-aid practices, student activities, classes taught in your field of interest and your odds of making the cut academically. To judge academics, look at the students' average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

On the Web, "students are looking for content, content, content, not the slick hyperbole-filled stuff that characterizes many view books," said ASG's Rick Hesel. You can get straight information, in exactly the areas you want.

* Screen for schools. At some college-search sites, you can enter various criteria--location, size, cost, sports, major--and get a list of schools to check. The most popular site: Some others:,,

You'll get different lists at different sites, depending on what's in their databases and whether schools pay them in order to be included on the site.

Payments aren't generally disclosed (much of the Web is still ethically challenged). But even paid sites expose you to schools you haven't heard of before, some of which might interest you.

* Schedule a visit. Some schools offer Preview Days, when prospective students come to campus, attend events and meet with professors in their areas of interest. You can schedule your day online to avoid events that overlap.

But students are more reluctant to talk to admissions and financial-aid officers online, ASG reports. A majority would rather get on the phone with someone real.

* Apply. Some schools provide online application forms. Starting this year, the business school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outlawed paper applications.

Where they have a choice, however, even students who gather data online prefer to apply the traditional way, Hesel said. He's not sure why. Maybe they think that online applications won't be taken as seriously. Or they may want to enclose other things: artwork, music on disc, videocassettes.

Helpful as the Web is, nothing beats a real visit to campus. But virtual tours help you find which schools may suit you best.