A visit to campus will give you a feel for a school's culture. You can also ask current students what they do and don't like about the extracurricular life.
[Use these 10 tips for an effective college visit.]
6. How key is diversity? Consider how you respond to people who think or act differently than you do. Perhaps you're a conservative who is energized by liberals; others feel freer to open up when they're part of a well-represented political, religious or ethnic group.
Additionally, a look at course offerings and the list of student organizations on campus can give you a feel for the representation of viewpoints. Speaking to current students who have a background similar to your own can be informative, too.
7. How much can I afford? College counselors advise parents to be frank about their financial limits, and preferably before the search process begins. How much can they contribute from savings and income? Are they willing and able to borrow?
If the family means are modest, a pricey private college isn't out of the question. But your focus may shift to those with a fat aid budget. Recognizing your strengths and limitations now is the surest way to avoid disappointment later.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.