NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - There was a time when students relied largely on word of mouth, college fairs and directories the size of phone books to conduct their college search.
Now, sophisticated search engines help match your preferences with schools, college Web sites give virtual campus tours, and e-mail and message boards make it easy for "prospectives" to get the inside scoop from upperclassmen and alumni.
While the tools have changed, the strategy for finding the best fit is rather timeless. It's simply a matter of setting your priorities, exploring as many options as possible, applying to a variety of schools and then carefully weighing the pros and cons of each acceptance letter.
Before you launch a full-scale college search, take some time -- preferably early in your junior year -- to think about why you're going to college. Don't worry. There is no right answer, even if you have only a vague idea of what you want to study.
What's more, the reasons for going away to college need not be limited to getting a degree. When Matt King began his college search, he knew he wanted access to a large city. "I considered some suburban schools, but when I talked to the students I realized they didn't get to the city much," said King, who ultimately chose Columbia University. In fact, the contacts he made interning in New York helped him land a job at a record label when he graduated last year.
Katie Krueger, on the other hand, focused her college search on schools with strong science programs that weren't too far from home. She chose the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse because, among other reasons, it promised smaller class sizes at in-state prices. "I know all of my professors," said the sophomore.
By having some idea of what you want to get out of the next four years, you'll have an easier time prioritizing the many factors that make each school different, whether it's the size, location, academic philosophy, campus culture, reputation or a dozen other considerations.
When investigating different schools, don't put too much stock in any one ranking or review. Also, don't eliminate a school, at least initially, simply because its annual sticker price seems out of your league. Even parents with incomes in the six-figures sometimes qualify for financial aid, and many schools, particularly small liberal arts schools, offer generous packages based on merit rather than need.
According to Michael Fleischner, vice president of college guide publisher Peterson's, it's a good idea to start researching financial aid early in the process, as federal financial aid forms are due in early January of your senior year.
Another factor you may not want to take at face value is a school's selectivity, which is usually measured by average SAT and ACT scores. These scores are only averages; students with higher and lower scores are accepted. Plus, schools increasingly are looking beyond standardized test scores when admitting students. A student with below-average test scores, for example, may get in on the basis of a brilliant essay or impressive resume of extracurricular activities. Similarly, a student with above-average test scores could be turned away if he falls short in other areas.
Of course, it's one thing to read a school's academic stats, quite another to actually see the campus. Schools have done a pretty good job giving "virtual tours" via their Web sites. This can be helpful during your initial search, particularly if you're considering a school on the other side of the country, but the Internet is still no substitute for real-life campus visits.
"I urge kids to spend a day or night at two or three of the colleges they're interested in," said Loren Pope, author of "Colleges that Change Lives." "They should ask a lot of questions, knock on faculty doors and sit at the big table in the cafeteria."
Campus visits were key to Anthony Costa's college search. After doing exhaustive research on liberal arts schools, Costa came up with a list of 15 schools. "I knew I couldn't visit them all," he said. "So I visited four schools that were different." In fact, after he was accepted at seven of the nine schools to which he applied, Costa visited three more schools. He ultimately decided to leave Oregon for Bowdoin in Maine, where he'll be a sophomore next year.
Assuming that your original list of priorities hasn't changed since you started the college search -- which is entirely possible -- make sure these qualities are reflected in your final list of schools. It's also a good idea to see that your mix of schools includes at least one safety school and possibly one financial safety school. That way if you don't qualify for any need- or merit-based aid at the more expensive schools, you'll still have the option of going to a public school or less pricey private school.
Most students don't apply to quite as many schools as Costa did (though, he says, one of his high school classmates applied to 13 schools). According to Peterson's Fleischner, four to seven is a more common range, especially considering that application fees range from $25 to $100 and that more competitive schools require at least one original essay.
Although you don't want to focus too much on tuition prices early in the search, it's something you and your parents are going to need to consider once acceptance letters and financial aid offers start showing up in the spring. If you're awarded any aid, be sure to compare the specifics of individual offers by scrutinizing the amount of grant aid, which you don't pay back, loans and work/study outlined in each package.
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If your first choice turns out to be considerably more expensive than your second or third choices, even with financial aid, you and your family may have to talk about a compromise. The more expensive school might still be an option, if you're willing to be responsible for student loans, hold down a part-time job during school and work full-time in the summer. Just keep in mind that working during the school year may take away from other activities and those student loans could eat up a good chunk of your monthly income after graduation.
Then again, you might also be persuaded to choose the less expensive second choice if doing so could free up some money for, say, spending a semester abroad or taking a cool unpaid internship during the summer.