What, exactly, should you look for in a college? You'll certainly want an academic program that suits your abilities and interests.
But the school you attend will become much more than the place that grants your degree; by graduation, it will have been home for nearly one-fifth of your life.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you work on finding the right fit.
1. Why go to college? Are you looking for an exhilarating intellectual challenge? Preparation for a career in nursing or Web design? Are you more inclined to spend late nights hanging out with friends or buried in the lab or library?
Your answers will suggest the right balance between academics and extracurricular activities, and whether a general liberal arts or more focused, skills-oriented program suits you. A college offering a wealth of majors is probably the best choice for someone with no strong direction yet.
[Check out 11 hot college majors that lead to jobs.]
2. How do I learn best? If you don't like to be called on, a large lecture format may be your preference.
Those who crave discussion and problem-solving and collaborative learning will probably be happier in the small seminars more typical of liberal arts colleges and honors programs within large universities, or at schools that have built in programs to engage students, such as a first-year experience or learning communities.
At some schools, writing is part of the learning experience across the curriculum; at others, students must prepare a comprehensive thesis or research project to graduate.
Does professional work experience sound like a necessity to you, through internships or community service? If you do your best schoolwork while regularly blowing off steam playing soccer, you may want to cross off any choices where you can't.
3. How do I handle pressure? At a school where the course work is highly demanding and your fellow freshmen have transcripts at least as studded with A's and APs as yours, you may struggle just to stay in the middle of the pack.
Even if you have the grades to make a highly selective college, you may be happier – and ultimately more successful – on a campus where you can stand out and in a culture oriented toward cooperation rather than intense competition.
4. How independent am I? In theory, it may sound liberating to move as far from mom and dad as possible. But consider how often you might want to zip home for the weekend. One big reason students opt to transfer is that they want to be closer to home.
5. What activities matter? Someone who has volunteered at a homeless shelter during high school may realize that sororities and fraternities hold zero appeal, and that it would be great to be among politically active students or on a campus with a deep commitment to service.
Someone else with a passion for skiing may feel deprived living in the heart of Chicago or Dallas. And an avid sports fan might want to avoid a college with no serious teams.