Also, as you begin your search, try to keep an open mind and free yourself from any prejudices or preconceived notions you may have about particular schools. Many more schools than the Ivy League colleges offer stellar academics, and just because a college is a highly competitive one doesn't mean that students are boring and don't know how to have a good time.
Have a Plan
I'd written down the few things that were most important to me in a college-strong econ department, small campus, near a city-and kept this piece of paper with me as I researched schools. It was a great reminder.
Before you dive into your research, you need to have some kind of a plan. Otherwise, before you know it, you'll be drowning in piles of papers and have no idea why you were even looking at a particular college in the first place. Use your ideal college profile, have an organized approach for looking at each school, and think about how many schools you'll need to research.
As we mentioned in our college timeline, try to start your college research at the beginning of your junior year. That way you'll have enough time to look at a few schools, decide which ones to visit, and even revisit some if you feel you need to. If you can avoid being rushed, it's a huge help.
Start your research by looking at your ideal college profile and identifying a few of the most important qualities you'd like your college to have. If you know you want a good history department, start by looking at some schools that have one. If you're after a tough academic environment, that can be your starting point. Or, if you know you want a college in California that's a top academic school you can use those two qualities combined to start your search.
Once you've identified a bunch of schools--say ten to twenty--that have one or more of your top requirements, see how they measure up in the other areas that are important to you. Make note of any that seem to hit the mark in several areas. These are the ones you'll want to research in more depth.
Depending on what you're looking for, you may come up with either too few or too many schools and will have to broaden or narrow your search. If you want to go to college in Arizona and you also want to major in Finnish, you're probably not going to come up with that many schools that meet both of those requirements. Pick what's more important to you--Finnish major or Arizona--and broaden your search based on that change. On the other hand, if you want to study English at a school in the Northeast, you're going to come up with way too many schools to consider in depth. To narrow down your search, add another requirement. For example, if you'd like a quiet campus, you can research schools with good English programs in rural campuses in the Northeast.
Another useful technique we've found is to have a system for looking at each school as you go through your research. It doesn't have to be anything complicated, but find a way that works for you and use it consistently. Maybe you start by looking at the school's website, then read a few guidebooks, and then talk to some alums. Or perhaps you can start by reading the school's brochures and course catalogues, and then move on to the web. If it works for you, it works!