But every school is different. "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 Options for College's Berman, a big school doesn't seem that way if it's well run, and many honors programs or colleges within larger schools provide an intimate environment. So don't blacklist a school solely on the numbers.
Hello, campus: Poking around from home is helpful, 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, director of college counseling at Memphis University School, a college-prep school in Tennessee. Just envisioning 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. Sit in on classes, grab a meal at the dining hall, or spend the night in a dorm to get a feel for what your life could be like for the next four years.
[Consider 36 questions to ask while on a college visit.]
The best resource of all? The students. "[Visitors] 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," says David Montesano, owner of College Match, a coaching and placement service based in San Francisco with offices in several other states.
And pull out that journal again to jot down notes about your experiences, Montesano says. If you're on a 15-schools-in-four-days tour, it can be easy to confuse what you saw where.
Short list: Your final assignment: Balance your research with a reality check. Where would you like to go that will accept you? Academy of Science's Fonash says there's no magic formula, but a good guideline is to pick one or two "reach" or long-shot schools, three in the middle range, and two sure bets. Those in the last category are sometimes called "safety" schools, but "if you can't fathom going there, it's not a viable option," Smith says.
On the other side, while applying to just Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Princeton University, and Stanford University is probably not a smart strategy, don't be afraid to stretch a little. Berman was astounded when a student told him where she was applying and never mentioned Columbia University, 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 if you feel you can't find the perfect program, it's time to prioritize. "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."
The payoff: It's not naptime yet. There's still the pesky part of actually applying. 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 essays, you can note the discussion with the 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 library mural. And during interviews, when asked why you're applying, "you'll give an answer with substance to it other than, 'My friends are going here, and the lawn is gorgeous,'" Fonash says.
Those substantial details indicate "demonstrated interest," which is something admissions officers say boosts a student's chances of acceptance. And that boost will definitely come in handy when senior spring rolls around.
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.