Finding the College That's the Right Fit for You

Secrets of coming up with a shortlist of schools that you're interested in.

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You don't need to be a math whiz to solve this one: Who has better odds of gaining acceptance at the college that's the best match, the kid who applies to 25 schools indiscriminately or the one who applies to a carefully whittled-down list of seven?

Safety in numbers doesn't apply to getting into college, no matter how many applications you think you can churn out thanks to your good pal, the Common App. Getting that fat envelope from the school of your dreams requires figuring out exactly which school that is, and that takes introspection and research, not extra supplemental essays.

And just to keep a sense of perspective (in case you're friends with that first kid), according to the Higher Education Research Institute's most recent survey of freshmen, only 2.4 percent of students applied to 12 or more schools.

It starts with you. Maybe you're feeling in pretty good shape right now because you have only two colleges you're interested in: that nearby state school and the one your older brother attends. Nice try: Both you and our college application addict are making the same mistake. "Always start with you, not with the colleges," advises John Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. Before you pore over information about class sizes, majors, and male-to-female ratios, consider these questions: What are your values? What's your learning style? Which classes do you enjoy? Which do you hate? What makes you happy? What are your goals?

Keith Berman, president of Options for College, a college counseling and consulting firm in New York, calls this the collection phase. He recommends making an activity list, journaling to put words to feelings you've never expressed, and talking to people—your guidance counselor, a favorite teacher, your parents—about your interests and skills. You should also write a résumé.

One student who walked into Boshoven's office last year announced that she was planning on studying prelaw or pre-med in college. "So I said, 'You must like science.' She said no. Then I said, 'Do you like to read a lot?' and again she said no. She had just been telling me what her parents had always told her," he recounts. After delving more deeply, they started talking about her job as layout editor for the yearbook, and it became clear to both of them that what she was truly interested in was graphic arts.

Do your homework. And that brings us to your second research project. Now that you know who you are, it's time to figure out what's up with all of these colleges.

Marty O'Connell, executive director of the nonprofit Colleges That Change Lives, wants you to schedule an extra hour of homework a week, starting in your junior year, to look over websites and virtual tours to get a sense of different kinds of schools. "You shouldn't equate name recognition with quality or fit," she instructs. So a good hunt takes detours away from the Ivy League, out of your state (and even region), and certainly to at least a few places you'd never heard of before you started (you can begin with the 12 colleges that are profiled in this year's road trips).

Many high schools bring in admissions officers from colleges, and while you shouldn't skip class every time one visits, these can be valuable chances to dig further. These folks are likely to be able to answer questions you couldn't figure out from navigating a website—plus they're probably the ones who will eventually read your application, so snag some face time early on. If your school doesn't offer these opportunities, keep an eye out for local college fairs, like the ones run by the National Association for College Admission Counseling and Colleges That Change Lives.

What you're looking for will vary depending on your interests, but of course, it should start with academics (that is, after all, the point of attending college). You can browse through course catalogs, peek at faculty Web pages to find out what they're researching, and look into study abroad.