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•Find a Microcollege Tiny schools with a few hundred students or less may be daunting to some; if your idea of college is lots of keggers and skeezy nights you can't tell your parents about, you may want a bit more anonymity. But for those looking for four years of close-knit community, wee colleges come in many flavors. The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (68 students) in Merrimack, N.H., offers a rigorous Catholic education. The College of the Atlantic (278 students) in Bar Harbor, Maine, has an additional intimacy built into its curriculum, because all students share the same crunchy major, human ecology.
•Give Grades an F In your adult life, it's likely that nobody, not even your boss, will ever care what grades you got in college. Some schools don't much care either and have taken grades out of the equation. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., opts instead for detailed written evaluations of student projects. Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., says not distracting students with letter grades is key to making sure they're motivated only by a love of learning. Don't worry, pre-med and pre-law students: more than half of all Hampshire students go on to grad school, even without GPAs.
•Keep the Faith America's campuses are not quite so godless as some believers might think. There are scores of colleges that mix liberal arts and religious values to attract competitive students. Taylor College in Upland, Ind., offers the same courses as secular schools, but students can still minor in youth ministry or biblical languages. Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., is known as the evangelical Harvard for its twin traditions of quality academics and deep faith. Not that contemporary values haven't been encroaching. In 2003 Wheaton lifted its 143-year-old ban on dancing.
•Lean Toward Green For die-hard stewards of the earth, there are a handful of institutions that style themselves solely as environmental liberal-arts colleges. Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz., tells prospective students that they will have a chance to do much of their learning in the 1.4 million acres of surrounding national forest. Northland College in Ashland, Wis., encourages hands-on environmentalism. The college's president got into the act herself this summer, spending a month as the sole caretaker and guide at an island lighthouse on Lake Superior.
10 TIPS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1 Hold your horses. There's no need to start the search until the summer before junior year
2 Get organized: the best applicants treat the process as a research project, with clear goals and deadlines and lots of note taking
3 If possible, pay a visit: no amount of Web surfing can replace a real tour of a campus
4 Study the price: with scholarships and financial aid, the college that causes the worst sticker shock may still offer a better deal
5 Contact the coaches: even if you're not a star in your chosen sport, a coach who thinks you could be a walk-on could lobby for you
6 Know the tests: SATs and ACTs have their own logic. Practice!
7 Be first in line: if you can, apply for early action or early decision
8 Don't overapply: stay safe and sane with five to eight schools
9 Click Send: online apps are ultraconvenient. But follow up by phone to be sure it went through