Then, there are the quality-of-life issues that define a college experience. O'Connell calls it the "Ultimate Frisbee Search." Although you'll be hard-pressed to find a school that doesn't have a Frisbee presence on campus, the idea is that certain passions are enough to drive your decisions. It may be that you want to avoid a school with Greek life, or you desperately want to join a Bhangra dance troupe. Maybe you can't imagine attending a school that's more than a three-hour trip from home. Those are all valid parameters. Another popular one: temperature! "If you know you don't like cold weather, don't go to Rochester," notes Jayne Fonash, guidance director at the Academy of Science in Sterling, Va.
Sizing up schools. You've probably also heard people talk a lot about whether you want a "big" school or a "small" school. There's truth in the general stereotypes of each—big schools tend to have more resources and opportunities but boast red tape and classes taught by graduate students, while small schools tend to be closer knit with more of an undergrad focus but limited academic and social opportunities.
In terms of individual schools, however, these views could be all wrong. "Sometimes [students are] afraid it won't be exciting if it's under 2,000 students, but then they realize there's a lot more going on than they expected," O'Connell says. Conversely, says Berman, a big school doesn't seem that way if it's well run, and there are many honors programs or colleges within larger schools that provide an intimate environment. So don't blacklist a school solely based on the numbers.
When putting together your initial list, it can also help to work backward from your goal, suggests David Montesano, owner of College Match, a college coaching and placement service. Want to be an engineer or a music video director or a neurosurgeon? "Find ones you can talk to, and find out which schools they attended," he says. "You may hear the same names over and over again."
Hello, campus. All of this poking around from home is helpful for background, but nothing beats visiting campuses and trying them on for size. "You'll know from that very first moment when you step out of the car," promises Brian Smith, senior associate director of college counseling at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. Just walking around and trying to envision yourself hanging out in that student center or studying in that library can help you determine if a school is worthy of the application fee.
Take some of what you see with a grain of salt—the first day of finals will feel different from the first one after spring break wherever you go, and a sunny afternoon is sure to make a better impression than a rainy one. But don't feel you need to disregard your gut. "Things can go bad on any day, but they're more likely to happen in a bad place," Berman says.
Sit in on classes, grab a meal at the dining hall, and try to spend the night in a dorm, and you'll get a feel for what your life could be like for the next four years. Instead of reading about how talented the a cappella singers are, hear them in person. Look in on that shiny new lab, and find out if undergrads are really getting the chance to use it. Grab copies of student publications for an insider's look at campus concerns.
The best resource of all? The students. In Montesano's view, you're there on a reconnaissance mission, so skip the tour and wander around on your own. "Students don't want to do it the first few times, but I tell them they need to go up to students and ask what they like about their school. What would they improve? That's gold," he says, adding that five students is his minimum. Not only will that help you decide whether to apply, it can shape how you eventually fill out your application. If you discover that the school is looking to build up its community service opportunities, you can mention that you've led the charge for similar change at your high school.
It's also worth trying to set up chats with faculty, and if you're planning on playing a sport, make sure you get a chance to meet the coach. Unlike the random junior who ignores you when you try to strike up a conversation on the quad, the coach is someone you're sure to be interacting with regularly.