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If you're like most college-bound students, you want to get into the best school you possibly can. But too often, "best" means "most selective" instead of a place where you'll thrive academically and socially.

Increasingly, admission experts are encouraging students to focus on fit over prestige. When Rob Miner started considering colleges, he had a pretty good idea of what he was looking for: a small school with a strong history program, located in a relatively quiet setting. Rob’s high school academic record gave him plenty of options—including some well-known “name” schools—but the Nebraska student ultimately decided to enroll at Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter, Minnesota. “After I visited the campus and talked to an admissions rep and some professors,” Rob explains, “I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”

Finding a college that fits who you are and what you want to get out of your education takes a little introspection—and a whole lot of research. “It’s important to look at your personal priorities,” says Kelly Y. Tanabe, coauthor of Get Into Any College (Supercollege, 2006). “Develop your own personal college rankings. Don’t just rely on what the magazines or your parents or friends say—take a good hard look at yourself.”

Your priorities might lead you to a leafy green campus with professors who know students on a first-name basis, or to a fast-paced urban setting with a constantly changing sea of faces and an eclectic range of activities. Your preferences will set the starting point in your search for the right college.

What really interests you?

Even if you have no idea what you want to major in, start thinking about which classes and activities you enjoy most. Focus on the subjects and activities you’re most passionate about and look for schools that offer strong programs in those areas.

“Your major should be a primary factor in choosing a college,” says Carol Descak, former Director of Admissions at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. “Talk to faculty, current students, and alumni. Ask what makes the program at one college different from or better than the same program at another school.”

Descak recommends asking about special opportunities for research, internships, and mentoring, all of which can give you a significant leg up in the job market. It’s also a good idea to check out the campus facilities—are the labs, art studios, and other resources up-to-date and fully equipped? The more experienced you are with current technology, the better.

Don’t forget to consider clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities as well—after all, college life is about more than just hitting the books!

What is realistic for you?

It’s important to be realistic about your academic record and abilities and focus on schools that match them. Before you invest time and money in applying to any school, do a little homework: find out the average GPA and test scores for freshmen, and the percentage of applicants who are accepted.

“Given the increase in the number of students applying to four-year schools, many universities haven’t increased the size of their freshman class” and they have grown even more selective, says Keith Gramling, Director of Admissions at Loyola University in New Orleans. “See if you are a likely fit for that academic community.”

You should also consider the cost of tuition, the percentage of students who receive financial aid, and the average amount received. This information will help you and your family decide whether the school will be financially feasible.

How independent are you?

Are you looking forward to a complete change of scene in college, or do you prefer the possibility of spending an occasional weekend at home?

In some cases, applying to a school that’s farther away from home might actually increase your chance of getting accepted. “Geographic diversity is a prized commodity for a college community,” says Michael Maxey, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. “A student coming from an underrepresented area can be positive [factor] in the admission process.”

Also consider lifestyle. Some students thrive in environments where they have a great deal of autonomy. Others prefer to have a little handholding, at least during the first year. “If you’re not sure which category you fit into, ask yourself, ‘Do I take the initiative to deal directly with teachers and administrators?’” advises Tanabe. Talk to current college students about the campus style—are students expected to follow strict rules and regulations, or is the campus environment more laid-back?

Is bigger better?

Think about your current high school. If you attend a small school with kids you’ve known since elementary school, do you find it comforting or are you bored? Conversely, if yours is a large urban or suburban high school, do you enjoy the diversity or do you feel overwhelmed?

Some students thrive in colleges that offer small, discussion-based classes where students and professors are on a first-name basis; others may prefer to take classes in large lecture halls where they can soak up the basics and then go to study on their own. To find a college that matches your learning style, ask about average class sizes—especially for the subjects you’re most interested in. Find out as much as you can about how classes are structured: is there opportunity for interaction and discussion, or are most courses taught through lectures?

Are you serious about sports?

Athletics can add a whole new dimension to your college search. If you’re a serious athlete, start by realistically assessing your abilities and considering which schools are most likely to give you a team jersey. Talk to the coaches at your high school and at the colleges you’re interested in and ask them to evaluate your chances of making the team.

“If you’re a student-athlete,” says Mike Frantz, Vice President for Enrollment Services at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, “be honest with yourself and expect the same level of honesty from your potential coach. Discuss what skills you have and what you will need to improve to become an impact player.” For more recruitment tips, check out our Athletics section.

Weighing your options

Once you’ve determined what’s important to you, it’s time to look for the colleges that fit your priorities. Talk to your guidance counselor, and use the Web to find more information on schools that might suit you.

As you develop your list of colleges, here are some additional factors to consider:

Public or private? Public or state schools usually charge less for tuition than private schools, especially for in-state residents. But private colleges often offer more financial aid, which can offset the difference in cost. And while state universities have a reputation for large class sizes, don’t base your decision on this generalization: many public schools offer a personal, student-centered environment that’s comparable to that of smaller private colleges.

Large or small? Large schools offer a wide variety of courses and majors, but the bureaucracy can be daunting and professors may be less accessible. Small schools generally offer a low student-faculty ratio and plenty of interaction with faculty, but course offerings and activities may be more limited.

Urban, rural, or suburban? In a big city, you’ll have access to exciting activities that can enrich your college experience, from concerts, theater, and art exhibits to shopping and club hopping. However, if you’re an outdoors type who enjoys hiking, or a nature lover who prefers starry skies to city lights, you might be happier at a more rural school. Looking for the best of both worlds? Consider a suburban school with easy access to the city.

Consider other paths. Perhaps a four-year college or university simply isn’t right for you at this point in your life. There are plenty of other options, including two-year schools, trade schools, military service, volunteer organizations such as the Peace Corps, or part- or full-time employment. Whatever you decide, always keep an open mind about all your options. That will lead you to the education that’s best for you.

Next step? Campus visits! To make the most of them, read our campus visit advice.

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