At Vincentian Academy in McCandless, the college counseling office is filled with the usual complement of full-color college binders, brochures and viewbooks.
But these days, most of those glossy volumes produced by colleges are just gathering dust.
"I don't think I've had kids looking at the catalogs," said counselor Julie Sitko. "They all just go straight to the Internet."
The college search and application process today is hardly recognizable from what it was even a decade ago, when students were still securing applications by mail and using typewriters to pound out their essays and lists of extracurricular activities.
Nowadays, many students -- and parents -- do the vast majority of their research over the Internet, signing up for e-mail lists, taking virtual tours and even submitting their applications.
"I don't think there's any question that students and parents are both beginning their college searches and really identifying their shortlist of colleges they want to explore using the Internet almost exclusively," said Scott Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment and communications at Allegheny College in Meadville.
Allegheny used to print 50,000 applications per year, said Mr. Friedhoff, and is now down to printing just a few thousand -- despite the fact that the number of applicants has nearly doubled just over the past four years. The school is so enamored with the online application process that it charges a $35 fee to apply through the mail, whereas applying online is free.
For guidance counselors, the ease of applying online has made their jobs considerably less tedious, said Susan Williams, a counselor at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville.
"We just love it, love it, love it," she said, noting that the Internet has cut down on the time she has to spend filling out the school portion of college applications by hand and mailing them in. The school now has an electronic partnership with Penn State University, where many students apply, and Ms. Williams said that she can now complete her part of the application in 30 seconds or less.
Olivia Colangelo, a senior at Franklin Regional, is planning to apply online to nine colleges, including Columbia, the University of Pittsburgh, Villanova and Georgia Tech.
Without the Internet, she doesn't think she'd be applying to as many schools -- there's only so much time that an 18-year-old can spend with a typewriter.
She also doesn't know if she would have been able to refine her college search as efficiently as she has, zeroing in on colleges located in or near a major city with a relatively small student body and her preferred major of chemical engineering.
The Internet has also provided her with assistance beyond just researching individual schools, from U.S. News & World Report's Web site to general application advice.
"Sometimes when I'm bored, I'll just Google tips about writing essays and asking for recommendations," she said. "It got kind of repetitive, but in the beginning it was really helpful."
But while the effects of the Internet are generally positive, Ms. Sitko at Vincentian worries that students are sometimes overwhelmed by too much information.
From the comforts of their living room, students can now peek in on dorm room design, cafeteria food and campus social scenes.
"What they have access to is kind of the insider knowledge -- the best dorms and the worst foods," she said. "A parent will come in and say 'A ranking service said this so we're not going to look there.' So much of it is biased for so many reasons and sometimes they get a false impression of a school."
The online research processes used by many students also pose challenges for college admissions departments. In the past, students would usually be forced to interact with admissions offices just to get a brochure and an application.
These days, sometimes the first contact college admissions officers have with prospective students is when they receive their applications.
And such students, known as "stealth applicants" actually might be putting themselves at a disadvantage. Many colleges use "demonstrated interest" as one way to judge how likely a student is to accept an offer of admission, giving students who have visited the campus, done an alumni interview or simply e-mailed with admissions officers an advantage.
"We have limited spots in our freshman class and we have limited numbers of offers of admission," said Mr. Friedhoff. "It's important for us to know that students in fact know about Allegheny, that they have made the decision that this is a place that would be a good fit for them."
To figure out how likely "stealth applicants" are to accept offers of admission, colleges have also had to refine some of the prediction formulas that they use.
For fall 2004, Allegheny College enrolled about 40 percent more freshmen than it had the prior year -- in part because the school estimated that a lower percentage of stealth and other electronic applicants would say yes than actually did so.
But numbers games aside, colleges appreciate the depth of knowledge that the Internet provides its applicants and their parents. Mr. Friedhoff said that he notices a real difference in the sophistication of the questions asked by students and parents when they visit the school.
In previous years, he said, a parent might ask what the school's student-teacher ratio is. Now, already armed with the knowledge that Allegheny's ratio is 14 to one, they'll ask what the average size of an introductory class is (22 students per class at Allegheny), knowing that some universities have huge classes for freshmen.
"Students and parents are being more comprehensive in their questioning, and more thoughtful in what they're looking for," he said. "They're less likely to accept the simple answer."
As information becomes more accessible, colleges are also hearing from students earlier in the process. It's not unusual now to get information queries from students in their freshman year, said Jason Nevinger, associate director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University.
"It's moved the whole timeline of how a student approaches his college search," said Mr. Nevinger. "It doesn't start junior year -- it starts freshman and sophomore year."
In the Pine-Richland School District, administrators recently dispatched a guidance counselor to start talking about college with eighth-graders.
In her freshman year of high school, Vincentian senior Sara Kiser first started checking out college Web sites, focusing her interest on Columbia University. Early in her junior year, she used the Internet to pick out a few other schools that she is interested in, such as Fordham and Barnard.
This fall, when she was making her decision to apply early to Columbia, she used the Internet to gauge the benefits of early decision, getting statistics on the percentage of applicants admitted early versus regular decision.
She's also used a Web site called Prep Headquarters that helps her keep track of deadlines and information sessions, and she subscribed to and sent e-mails to admissions counselors at various colleges.
She has to pause for a minute to ponder how the process would have been different without the Internet. "I wouldn't have known as much as I know now," she said, "but I could have squeaked by."
Anya Sostek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.