There are more than 6,800 postsecondary schools in the United States. So how do you sort through all those colorful brochures, flashy websites and mountains of advice everyone is throwing at you?
Break. It. Down.
By making a series of smaller decisions, you can have your choice narrowed down to just a few schools. Then, after thorough research, your No. 1 option will be clear.
Decide what factors matter to you. Think about the many aspects of college life and rank them in order of importance. For me, it was:
1. Offers my major
2. Cost and scholarships
4. Things to do on and off campus
6. Look of the campus
7. Study abroad opportunities
Other things to consider: public or private, diversity, campus housing, athletics, prestige, food on campus, religious affiliation, honors programs, support services, public transportation, weather and friends who also will attend that school.
Next to each of your factors, write down what you're looking for in each one.
1. Offers my major: I want to study journalism.
2. Cost and scholarships: I can't pay any more than $25,000 per year.
3. Size: I want a big school, at least 20,000 people.
4. Things to do on and off campus: I want to stay busy. I want there to be festivals, music, movies and sports games going on often.
5. Location: I don't want to be more than eight hours from my home of Akron, Ohio, but not too close either.
6. Look of the campus: I want the campus to be pretty and feel like home.
7. Study abroad opportunities: I want to see the world, but I want an affordable way to do it.
If you're not sure what factors fit you, it's best to try to learn more about different options. That's where college visits are the most helpful.
Compile your big list of all the universities that you want to consider.
You can use your list of factors to guide you, but it's OK to include as many as you'd like. It's also OK (and a good idea) to apply to a lot of them because they may offer you different financial aid packages and your goals may change during your senior year of high school.
I ended up considering seven universities: Kent State University, Ohio University, Indiana University, Syracuse University, University of North Carolina, University of Missouri and Columbia University.
Begin elimination. Websites like collegeboard.org, nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator, college-insight.org, cappex.com, and unigo.com are helpful in discovering what schools have the factors you're looking for.
All of the schools I chose offer journalism, but many didn't offer enough scholarships to bring my costs down to an affordable level. All are the right size and have things to do, but some are too far away. Keep crossing out names until you are left with a short list.
Research deeply, then rate. Now is the time to find out everything possible about your remaining schools. Talk to current students and alumni. Check out sites like ratemyprofessors.com and college rankings from usnews.com/rankings. Then, go back through your list of important factors and give the schools a rating in each area.
Decide. I don't recommend adding up all the points, because some scores (on your most important factors) matter more than others. For me, Indiana University was the winner. Just like your college experience, this decision-making method will work differently for everyone.
But with careful planning, on your first day of class, your first time cheering on the football team or your first walk through campus with new friends, you'll have the moment when you know -- you're in the right place.
Jessica Contrera, who was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette, is a senior majoring in journalism at Indiana University Bloomington. She can be reached at email@example.com. First Published October 3, 2013 4:00 AM