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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And pull out that journal again to jot down your experiences, Montesano says. If your parents are dragging you on a 15-schools-in-four-days tour, it can be easy to confuse what you saw at each school even by the next week.

Shortlist. You'll be needing that notebook for your final assignment—determining which schools are going to make the cut. That requires balancing the fruits of your research with a reality check. Where would you like to go that will take you?

First, some reassurance: While it's true that it's an ultracompetitive time in college admissions, most schools still accept more than half of the people who apply, and if you craft your list wisely, there's no reason to fear total rejection.

Fonash says there's no magic formula for developing the list, but a good guideline is to pick one or two reach schools, three in that middle range ("possibles," as some folks call them, and two that seem like sure bets. That last category is sometimes called "safety schools," but it's important not to think of these places just as ones that will accept you. You might actually end up there, so you have to be ok with that. "If you can't fathom going there, it's not a viable option," Smith says.

If you've done the work above, you'll find a few options that fill the bill, even if they don't thrill you quite like your top-choice school. "The idea that there's one magical fit for every student is a fairy tale," Fonash says. "There are several schools where you can be happy."

On the other side of the spectrum, while applying to just MIT, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford is probably not a smart strategy for almost anyone, don't be afraid to stretch a little. Berman was astounded when a student told him where she was applying and never mentioned Columbia, even though it seemed to match her goals exactly. "I called her parents and they said, 'She can't get into Columbia.' I told them, 'It's hard to get into Columbia because they're accepting people like your daughter.' The perfect program was staring them in the face, and she wasn't going to apply at all."

And what if you feel you can't find the perfect program? It's time to prioritize. Every school has its pros and cons, and you may have found that not one school managed to check off every box on your wish list. "There might be a school that's the most intellectually rigorous place you can find, but they don't have the meaningful internship program that's at this other school," Berman says. "You might decide, 'I can find those internships on my own.' Or, 'I can get the intellectualism on my own.' "

Also make sure it's the school you've fallen for, not the location, explains Berman: "I often have students ask themselves this question: Do I want to live in New York someday or do I want to go to that institution?" If your list of reasons for dreaming about New York University is entirely based on living in Greenwich Village and not on academic opportunities, remember that you'll have the rest of your life to live wherever you want.

In the end, the most important factor is making these decisions for yourself. Friends may mock schools they've never heard of, and parents may advocate for places they wish they'd attended, but it's your life and your education, and ultimately, you have to feel comfortable with your choices.

The payoff. Nope, even after all of that, it's not naptime yet. There's still the pesky part of actually applying to school. But the work you've already done is going to make it feel a whole lot easier (and cheaper, since you'll have fewer application fees to dole out). In those supplemental essays, you can note the discussion you had with that economics professor on your visit, the fascinating op-ed you saw in the school's daily paper, or the powerful reaction you had to the mural in the library. And during interviews, when you're asked about why you're applying here? "You'll give an answer with substance to it other than my friends are going here and the lawn is gorgeous," Fonash says.

Those details indicate "demonstrated interest," which is something admissions officers say gives students' acceptance chances a boost. And that will definitely come in handy when senior spring rolls around.