Grades that show a strong effort and an "upward trend."
"Solid scores" on SAT or ACT college entrance exams, consistent with high school coursework.
Depth of experience in a few activities, showing leadership and initiative.
Letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselor.
Well-written essay with personal insight.
Special talents or experiences.
Demonstrated leadership in activities.
Demonstrated intellectual curiosity.
Demonstrated enthusiasm for the college.
"If you find colleges that represent the best academic, personal, social and financial fit for a student, you are well on your road to success for them in their college days," Ms. Vater said. "I find they're more successful there. They stay there. They graduate on time."
She said today's students face a more competitive admissions process -- especially for about 100 top schools -- and students tend to apply to more schools.
Most schools, however, still accept 70 percent to 75 percent of their applicants, she said.
While colleges used to look for well-rounded students, she said, colleges today are looking for students who can add something special to the school.
Finances have become increasingly important. Ms. Vater said there are more than 50 schools that charge more than $50,000 a year, which she called "a hefty price tag for any family."
She said a lot of small liberal arts schools discount the price, particularly for students who are among the top enrolling at their school.
While merit aid is less likely at top schools, she said, many are well endowed and able to give substantial need-based grants.
Julie Sitko, a guidance counselor at West Allegheny High School, encourages students to think about the type of school they'd like: how far from home; small, medium or large; urban, suburban or rural.
From there, students can begin to think about schools that meet those criteria and then find ones that offer a major that interests them, if they have a major in mind, she said.
"A lot of kids change their majors so much. A lot of high school students come in and they don't know what to do. I encourage them to find schools that fit," she said.
At the start of a search, Ms. Sitko recommends not eliminating a school just because of the sticker price. She suggests talking with the financial aid office to see what help might be available.
Possibilities also should include schools known to be affordable.
To be prepared for college, Ms. Sitko encourages students to take classes "that are going to challenge them but are not going to challenge them so much they're going to be so stressed out or be overwhelmed. College is going to be challenging."
Educational consultant Connie Pollack of Squirrel Hill said the earlier students start planning the better.
"If they can learn and understand what is important in the admissions process or what admissions counselors look for in terms of their extracurriculars, for instance, they can make themselves a stronger applicant," she said.
She said colleges look at a variety of factors.
"It's not always just your grades and scores they're looking for. They're looking for leadership and how students distinguish themselves from one another," she said.
"If they know that early enough, they can explore and try different activities and find out if they're passionate about certain things."
Ms. Pollack said many students apply to six to eight colleges, some 10 to 12 and some more, particularly if they are applying to highly competitive schools.
Students should be sure to research what's best for them.
"They need to not just depend on where their friends are looking and where their siblings have gone," Ms. Pollack said.
Marty Elkins, director of college counseling at Shady Side Academy, recommends starting with self-reflection.
"I would advise a student to spend time thinking about him or herself first so they really have a sense of what is important to them and what they're looking for for the future," she said.
It's OK if students are undecided about a major. She said undecided students still are the largest percentage of college applicants today.
"Colleges are very, very good at taking undecided students and forcing them to take courses that will help them decide," she said.
Students can look for a school that has several possible areas of interest because majors often change.
For a student "kinda" interested in business, journalism and computer programming, she said, "There are plenty of universities that have all three."
Aside from visiting schools, she said there are other opportunities to talk with admissions officers, including the National College Fair run by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It will be Feb. 6 and 7 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Ms. Elkins urged students to stay organized through the search.
"If a student goes step by step through the process and plans carefully, they're going to be fine. There are plenty of colleges and universities that are great matches for kids," she said.