The college search is not about getting into the best college. We don't believe in a best college. There is no school that is best for all students.

Some students do best at large public universities; others excel in small liberal arts colleges; still others want to study far from home.

If you want to make the most of college, don't just apply to the big–name schools or the ones your friends are excited about. Do your own research to find schools that are a great fit for you.

In the Beginning

It's never too early to start compiling a list of potential colleges.

If you're a freshman or sophomore, go window–shopping. Check out colleges' websites and ask for ideas from friends, family and teachers. Keep a big list with every school that interests you.

How should you decide which schools to include? Most students consider size, location, programs and majors available, cost and financial aid, extracurriculars and student life. Think about what you absolutely must have: a good chemistry program, a tennis team, a small campus.

Over four years of high school, what you want will change. At first you may think going to a very big school is a good idea, until you realize that having 30,000 peers might be a tad overwhelming. Or, you might initially be set on staying close to home and then later discover you want to spread your wings. That's normal. Pay attention to your gut but keep an open mind. Sometimes your best fit school is not one you would have predicted.

The End is Near

As you get closer to senior year, it's time to start re–evaluating the list.

By now you should have an understanding of how your transcript is shaping up. Use this information (along with your scores from any standardized tests) to divide your list into match, reach and safety schools. You should plan to apply to a few from each category. Keep in mind that admissions committees usually look beyond scores and grades, so having outstanding extracurriculars or experience can put more schools within your reach.

The last–and most important–part of your research is the college visit. A visit can change everything. You may realize that your top choice school doesn't feel right, or that a college at the bottom of your list is actually perfect.

Spend as much time on each campus as possible. Take the official tour, then go on your own unofficial one. Sit in on a class. Eat at the campus cafeteria. And most importantly, talk to current students to find out whether they're happy.