The stakes of the college hunt keep getting higher. Perpetually rising costs combined with a tough job market have made a difficult process even harder. We've always said that finding the college that's best for you is an education in itself. It still is.
In fact, seeing the college search as the first step in a career journey is more important than ever. That's because unless you intend to win the Powerball lottery, the skills you learn in college need to line up with the realities of the job market.
Like it or not, the jobs of the future are going to be more demanding, particularly when it comes to technical skills, but also in expecting applicants to write and think clearly.
Employers increasingly want proof of skills. Colleges are fitfully trying to put more "real-world" content into their courses. Smart students – and parents – will need to think hard about what's the right career path, and what schools will help them get started.
We're here to help. Making this long process work starts with the right attitude and a few of the right resources. You're reading one of those resources now.
U.S. News has helped people through the college search for three decades, and our Best Colleges guide has long been viewed as an essential starting point.
Warning: Four-year brick-and-mortar colleges might not be your best option for a variety of reasons, including cost and lack of focus on measurable skills. It's worth considering two-year programs and various kinds of online options.
We also give you a feel for the culture at a cross-section of schools, and we help you get organized for what can seem like an overwhelming series of requirements and deadlines. We take you through how to pay the bill, which has become increasingly complicated.
We've also got research, sortable data, photos and a personalized tool called College Compass online. We even have job and internship information to give you a sense of where you might end up. Because, along with the value of a great education, aren't jobs the point?
Our goal is to bring perspective and sanity to what can be an exhausting experience. I'll be the first to tell you that there is no one best college.
The point is to find the one that matches your ambition and abilities. To do that, you have to do some homework, then get out and explore. The more campuses you've visited, the better you can compare – and starting early doesn't hurt.
By the time you come down to a short list of schools, there's no substitute for walking the grounds, talking to students and professors and asking some tough questions. And remember, the most important visit is often the one that comes after you've been accepted and have real decisions to make.
The process isn't as daunting as it may sound. The short list will soon emerge if you take your time – and keep your sense of humor.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.