It’s time to start applying to colleges, and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. You’re constantly bombarded with suggestions from well-meaning friends and family, and the sheer number of choices gives you a headache. Take a deep breath and don’t worry. We’re here to walk you through this process.

Don’t Worry About “Big Names” (Or Where Anyone Else Wants You to Go)

When choosing a college, it’s tempting to go for the “big name” schools. Harvard sounds pretty fancy, right? Yale has such a prestigious ring to it. Don’t fall into this trap. You want to choose a school based on whether or not it is compatible with your needs. So throw all those preconceived notions out the window and focus on finding your dream school. If it turns out to be Harvard, perfect! If not, that’s okay too.

The same applies to those constant suggestions you receive from your friends, your family, your teachers, and pretty much everyone you know. While it’s good to hear input and feedback from your loved ones, don’t lose sight of the fact that you will be the one attending this school for four years (or more). Make sure you find a school that is right for you, regardless of the opinions of others.

Create a List of Criteria

Imagine yourself at the perfect college. What do you picture? Are you close to home or somewhere far away? Are you in a big city or a small town? Is it a small, cozy school or a school that’s big and bustling? Do you want to join a fraternity or sorority? Are you hoping to attend a school that is affiliated with your religion? Generate a list of qualities that your ideal school would possess.

Also consider what you want to study. If you plan to major in Journalism, try to find a school that is known for a strong, highly successful journalism program.

Once you’ve created your list, find a website or book that provides detailed information about colleges. Resources like these give you extensive information on student happiness, food, sports, the school’s best programs, Greek life, professors, enrollment, and more. Based on your list of criteria, begin making a list of schools that just might be your perfect match.

Consider Your Stats

Remember that although you are choosing a college, the college needs to also choose you. So think about what you have to offer. What is your SAT/ACT score? What is your GPA?  Most college websites include information about the average test scores and GPAs of the students they accept. Guides and websites like the examples listed above typically contain this information as well.

Of course, don’t forget that these parameters are not set in stone. Some strong extracurricular activities or an excellent personal statement could offset low numbers.

The general advice for applying to colleges is to apply to some “safety schools” and some “reach schools.” A safety school is a school where you are almost guaranteed to be accepted, based on data about the average accepted student. A reach school is a school that you absolutely love, but that you may not be able to get into. Still, you should apply and see what happens—you never know! Apply to at least four or five schools: 1-2 safety schools, 2-3 schools where you have a decent chance of being accepted, and 1-2 reach schools. This way, you can strive for your dream school with the knowledge that, regardless of what happens, you will have somewhere to go in the fall.

Visit Your Top Choices

No amount of research can truly capture the “feel” of a school. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to your absolute favorites and weighed your chances of acceptance, do your best to visit these schools in person.

Most schools offer guided tours, usually led by a current student. It’s definitely a good idea to sign up for these tours, because they are very informative and will guide you through the highlights of the school.

Even if you go on a guided tour, also take some time to wander, observe, and soak in the atmosphere of the school. Walk the campus, sit in the dining halls, talk to current students, and explore as much as possible. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll notice if you can imagine yourself happy, thriving, and successful on that campus.

And there you have it. Choosing the right college may seem like an impossible task, but following these simple steps will help you find your perfect match. Good luck!