If the main purpose of your college application is to demonstrate your fit with the institution to which you are applying, you’ll have an easier time doing so if that institution actually fits your preferences. 

Think about the long game, too—choosing the right school is not only important for your admissions chances, but also for your chances at success in school and after. If you attend a school that meets your needs and desires regarding academics, extracurriculars, campus life, and setting, you’ll be happier, do better in your classes, and have a higher chance overall of landing a competitive job or spot in graduate school. So, choose wisely!

To get started, you’ll need to list out your preferences honestly and thoughtfully. Here are some questions to help you begin:

ACADEMICS

•What are your academic abilities? How hard do you study, what are your natural talents and interests, and how academically competitive are you? You’ll want to choose a school where you fit academically—one where you’ll feel challenged but won’t drown.

•What majors are you considering? Do you want to conduct research? What types of libraries or labs would allow you to do so? If you decide to change your major, does the school offer other appealing options?

•What kinds of professors and researchers do you want to learn from and interact with based on your academic interests? Are there specific thought leaders in the fields you’re interested in whom you would love to work with?

SCHOOL DEMOGRAPHICS

•Do you know the differences between public, private, Ivy League, and liberal arts schools? Do some research to determine what type of school you’d like to attend.

•What size school are you comfortable with? Will you feel lost in a population of 20,000 students, or invigorated by the opportunity? Will a population of 1,000 students stifle you, or encourage you to get to know your classmates well? In addition to overall campus population, consider the average class size. How do you learn best—in big lectures or small groups?

•Will you be looking for financial aid? Are you or your family willing to take out loans to cover the cost of your education? Would you consider applying for scholarships? Have you checked to see if the schools are need-blind or need-aware?

CAMPUS LIFE

•What kind of student body do you want to interact with at school? Do you want to go to school with familiar faces or make friends from all over the world?

•What kinds of activities do you want to engage in while attending college? What sorts of campus organizations, trends, and social groups are you interested in? Are you looking for friends who are activists or volunteers? How important is a fraternity or sorority system to you? What about athletics and school spirit?

SETTING

•Where in the country (or world) do you want to be located? What’s an acceptable distance from home? What regions are you most comfortable in (South, West Coast, Northeast, etc.)?

•What type of weather do you function best in?

•What environment do you want for your college experience: a city, a college town, the mountains, the plains, the coast? Do you need to be close to a city, or would you rather be totally isolated on a rural or forested campus?

•Do you want a self-enclosed campus, or one with college buildings spread throughout a town or city? Do you envision a quad with ivy-covered buildings, or high rises downtown?

Think through these questions and sketch out what you feel you would want from your college experience. Once you have a profile that you are comfortable with, use your list of preferences to filter colleges using a website like bigfuture.com or unigo.com. In theory, you’ll come out with a list of 10-20 schools that you should consider visiting in order to get a better sense of whether you’d want to attend any of them.