So what factors should college-bound teens consider when making their wish list? It's not the school with the best parties, weather or where their best friend or boyfriend is applying.
According to one of the nation's top college admissions consultants, Dr. Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise and LinkedIn Higher Ed Expert, it all comes down to academic, social and financial fit.
'Imagine you're starting college tomorrow,' Dr. Cohen says. 'Which courses would you take? Who would you be excited to study with? Are there research, internship and study abroad opportunities offered in your areas of interest? Which extracurricular activities would you take advantage of on and off campus? Have you had an open conversation with your parents about their expected financial contribution?'
If they do their research correctly, students should end up with a list of 12 to 15 good-fit schools, a balance of reach, target and likely schools, any of which they'd be happy to attend, says Dr. Cohen. For students who aren't sure exactly where to begin, she offers the following tips:
Get your computer, tablet or smartphone and get online
It's never too early for students to begin researching schools. Thanks to the Internet, students have a wealth of information readily available at their fingertips. They can visit college websites, page through online course catalogs and even take virtual campus tours. Students can also get a real student perspective and good sense of campus culture by reading the school newspaper and blog online.
LinkedIn, the world's largest professional network, provides aspiring students with the opportunity to make informed decisions on which universities, majors and skills will help them achieve professional success - making college matchmaking even easier. The company's newly launched LinkedIn University Pages allows higher education institutions to have dedicated pages so they can build their community and directly engage with prospective students, current students, parents and alumni. University Pages allows college-bound teens to access important information on colleges, such as the cost of tuition, notable alumni and more. They can also gain valuable insights on what it's really like on campus by connecting with current students and recent graduates, and trace the educational and professional paths of notable alumni by following the most influential business leaders and company pages.
Be a student on campus, even if for a day
Students will likely be spending four years of their lives at college, and nothing beats the gut check that comes with an in-person campus visit. Students should plan on visiting the schools that they are considering seriously while school is in session. It's important to attend both the official information session and the campus tour, as it shows demonstrated interest in the school. However, students should also make time to explore the campus and local community on their own.
Do's and don'ts of a campus visit: Do forgo the urge to stay in an expensive hotel and eat in a four-star restaurant. Don't miss the opportunity to have a meal with current students in the campus dining hall, audit a class in a topic of interest and spend a night in a campus dorm room. Do take lots of photos and copious notes. Don't let mom and dad ask all the questions. Do wear comfortable shoes.
Alumni networks, a secret weapon
Alumni networks are a great resource for college-bound students that often go untapped. Students should talk to their college guidance counselor and see if there are any alumni from their high school who currently attend or have recently attended the colleges that interest them. These alumni often come from a similar background and can talk about what the transition to the college was like for them. They may also be willing to host an overnight stay.
Not sure what to study or major in? Network in a field of choice or in a few that are of interest. Professional associations for undergraduates and LinkedIn can help students connect with people who can provide insight into a profession - and who may be potential employers in the future.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all college. If students take the time to do their research early on in the admissions process, they will be happily attending a good fit college come orientation.