(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you're packing up your car this summer for a trip to the beach or the mountains, take pity on those of us off to something far less relaxing. We're the ones with kids who have just finished their junior year in high school. We're heading out for campus tours--the first step in the awful process known as "getting into college."

This exercise in angst is much more complicated now than when I went through it in the mid-1960s--an epoch my boys call the Middle Ages. First, there are a lot more colleges to weed out. According to the Department of Education, there are now 3,688 institutions of higher learning, up from 2,230 in 1966. More alarming yet is the pressure to identify the right school quickly. With applications at record levels, top-rated colleges are now admitting 40% to 60% of their classes through early decision in December. That means many students are making choices up to six months sooner than they might have otherwise.

So how do you cope? Well, you and your kids have two advantages you didn't have back then--the PC on your desktop and the Internet beyond. At least a dozen software programs promise to help your student find a college, identify scholarships, and prepare for the SAT and ACT exams. And the Internet is a virtual college shopping mall. Almost every school larger than a postage stamp has its own World Wide Web page. If you have an Internet account, you can take virtual campus tours, peruse course catalogues, and download application forms.

Of the many CD-ROMs that my son and I checked out in preparation for our real-world tour, two stand out. The Princeton Review's College Advisor is my favorite. A database with attitude, it mixes comprehensive information about colleges with candid descriptions of campus life, based on a survey of 56,000 students. College Advisor gets down to basics, helping your kid prepare for college entrance exams and look good on paper, and helping you work the financial-aid system. The $20 CD-ROM is a bargain that works on both Windows and Macintosh machines.

College Advisor begins with an interview, asking your matriculant-in-training about grades, SAT scores, where Mom and Dad went to school, and what kind of college he's seeking, according to 26 different criteria--including size, location, majors offered, religious preferences, sports, and activities.

All this could be pretty dull if it weren't for College Advisor's irreverent attitude. It views college admission as a battle in which the first rule is that life isn't fair. An early section of the interview, for example, is called Turbo Admit. The message: If your kid's a teenage television star, Westinghouse Science Award winner, or scion of a notable politician or a family whose name appears on college buildings, you can skip the rest of the interview; he's in.

If your son, like mine, is a mere mortal, College Advisor takes him through the rest of the interview and then reaches into its database of 1,200 institutions to build a hot list of schools that match his qualifications and preferences. You can call up a detailed report about each college, or play You Against the World, which displays a bar graph showing how his academic credentials stack up against a school's admissions standards. Admission decisions depend on many other factors--but this feature quickly shows you whether he's even in the ball park.

Students who want less flash, a larger database, and additional counseling features should look at the College Edge Personal Edition, a $50 Windows program from Snap Technologies. You can't buy this one in a store--you have to order it from College Edge.

Like College Advisor, College Edge interviews candidates and matches their interests and abilities with schools in its database. But College Edge taps into the 3,200-school database of the College Board, the outfit that administers those notorious SAT tests. Their comprehensive list includes lots of two-year and community colleges.

If College Advisor is a CD-ROM with attitude, College Edge is full of empathy, the virtual equivalent of a friendly guidance counselor. It won't overwhelm you with video high jinks or provide the pointed student commentary that gives College Advisor a certain panache. But College Edge packs plenty of information and guidance into an attractive package. For instance, College Edge makes sure that you organize your search, and it gives you all the tools to do so, including a calendar for you to keep track of test, interview, and application due dates, a schedule of college fairs around the country, and a copy of the Common Application. It's also sensible enough to give you an estimate of how much each college on your hot list is likely to offer in financial aid, a handy feature not yet available in College Advisor.

Both CD-ROMs pack a lot of information onto one disk. But if you don't need all your data in one place, you can save money and have an equally successful virtual college hunt by surfing the World Wide Web.

Your first stop should be the College Board's superb home page. Like the CD-ROMs, it leads your kid through a thorough online interview to build a list of colleges that match her interests and qualifications. (For some reason the list doesn't offer direct links to college Web pages. You'll have to find those yourself.) But the site does include lots of other useful items, like a financial-aid calculator, a schedule of test dates, and an online SAT registration form. This alone is worth the visit--registering online is much easier than filling out the incomprehensible paper registration forms the College Board gives out in high schools.

As you're trying to narrow down your choices, check out the home pages of the Princeton Review and archcompetitor Kaplan Educational Centers, the two biggest names in the test-preparation and college-advice business. Both sites have links to the top schools, as well as information about where and how to sign up for prep courses. (Kaplan also has some silly but enjoyable online games, like College Simulator, which performs the highly important task of determining whether your daughter's a scholar or a party animal.) Another good site is U.S. News & World Report online's College Fair, which offers news about colleges, links to other sites, and the magazine's rankings of colleges and graduate schools.

Next, it's time to hit some college Web pages. Finding a college online is easy. Check out Yahoo's College Entrance Page, with links to 256 college admissions offices; Ecola's College Locator, with 2,100 sites; or Christina DeMello's College and University Home Page, with more than 2,600 listings. Once you've found a school's Website, look for the admissions office page. Most will give you information about scheduling a campus tour or interview. You can also usually click on an E-mail link to request a brochure or application by mail.

Be wary, though. The virtual tours on college Websites can be as slick and uninformative as those glossy brochures stuffing your mailbox. Your best bet is to look for the information that's intended for students already attending the school. Most sites include course schedules and descriptions, lists of campus events, and bios of professors, all of which will give you a better sense of the school than the glowing text you'll find on the home page.

Better yet, some schools provide links to personal Web pages maintained by faculty and students. Needless to say, these sites give you a more idiosyncratic sense of the schools. The University of California at Berkeley site links visitors to at least 100 pages run by students, including one describing fraternity life at Alpha Epsilon Pi. A storm-chasing meteorology student at the University of Kansas offers visitors links to a number of national weather pages as well as such Websites as the "GospelNet" home page and sites run by other students. And at the University of Georgia, a couple of clicks from the official home page takes you to the Pagan Students Association.

All of this should get you started with your college search. The next step is to actually visit the colleges that make your hot list, which inevitably means a road trip. Here, too, computers can help. Set your teenager up with a laptop and a good computer game, and that long drive or flight to University City suddenly seems a lot more bearable.


You can reach Mike Himowitz via E-mail at