"College enrollments are higher than ever. In 2005 more than 60% of high school graduates enrolled in two or four-year colleges and more than 16 million students were registered in some type of postsecondary education. Moreover, college enrollments are only expected to increase in the coming decade--a recent study by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling finds that 73% of colleges saw applications increase from the previous year.

This increase in applications is fueled by a number of factors, including:

* A demographic bulge in the number of college-age students.
* Online applications that ease the application process.
* Students applying to more colleges than ever before.
* College admissions offices spending an average of $442 to recruit each applicant.

This rise in college applications has created media frenzy, warning the already anxious college-bound that the college admissions process is more competitive than ever. In reality, four-year colleges and universities actually accept about seven of every ten applicants. So instead of focusing on just getting into college, students should concentrate on the years following admission and finding the most suitable school. The following three steps can help ease your college search.

Step 1: Figure Out What You Want
Choosing a college is very personal--it is not a decision to be taken lightly. Too often students choose colleges based on national rankings, without taking into consideration their own needs and priorities. So before you interrogate the admissions' officers, ask yourself some questions. Here are some considerations for you:

* Majors or Degree Programs--If you know what type of major or program of study you are interested in, look at the strengths of different programs and their curricular options.
* Financial Considerations--Understand how much you or your family is able to pay, and investigate opportunities for financial aid.
* Living Options--Do you want to live on campus or commute from home?
* Region--Are you an East-Coaster, West-Coaster, or somewhere-in-betweener? Do you want the beach or the mountains?
* Size of School--If you are used to being the big fish in a small sea the anonymity of a large school might not be for you. While large schools can offer more curricular options, small schools often provide better one-on-one relationships with professors. It just depends on what you're looking for.
* City, Suburbs or Rural--Do you want the excitement of the city life? Or do you prefer a beautiful backdrop?
* How Far from Home--Do you want Mom and Dad stopping by on weekends with your laundry, or are you looking to get as far away as possible?
* A Special Focus--Perhaps you are interested in finding a school with a special demographic focus, such as college with a particular religious affiliation, a historically black college, or women's college.
* Campus Life--Are you looking for a school with a lot of diversity? Do you want to play on a sports team? Is campus security a priority? Do you want to participate in Greek life? All of these questions can help you figure out what type of college life you are interested in.

Step 2: Narrow Down Your List
Once you have a clear idea of what you are looking for in a college, concentrate on targeting your search. Before you spend hundreds of dollars in application fees, narrow down your list of colleges to realistic matches.

Consider Your High School Record
According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, college admissions officers point to grades in college preparatory classes as the number one factor they consider when making a decision. Then come standardized admission test scores, high school grade point average, class rank, and the application essay, followed by teacher or counselor recommendations.

So before you apply to college, look at how realistic your chances are for acceptance. Many college counselors advise applying for two safety schools (institutions with standards you know you meet easily), two borderline schools (schools in which you have a fair shot at admissions) and two reach schools (they might stretch you a bit and you don't necessarily expect to get in).

Because Money Matters: Financial Aid Options
While education may be one of the best investments you can make, college is not cheap--and options for financial aid remain a crucial factor in choosing a college. When researching a school, consider what financial aid is available; many schools hand out need-based aid and others award merit-determined aid to attract students. Economizing students may attend a two-year college and then transfer to four-year institutions to minimize costs.

Step 3: Find Out More by Consulting Resources
Once you know what you are looking for there are many sources of information about colleges. While books and rankings are useful, try to get first-hand accounts of college life from students and alumni as well. Here are some useful options for researching colleges:

* Request information packets and brochures from colleges.
* Surf college websites, or visit portals that compare different colleges.
* Talk to school counselors, parents, and friends.
* Attend college fairs.
* Visit schools--take a tour, talk to current students and try to spend a night at a campus to get its overall feel.
* Consult guide books or national rankings.

College rankings may be the most popular way to compare schools, but there is a lot more to consider about a college than simply how hard it is to get in. You should go beyond admissions selectivity and check out the statistics that will give you a better idea of what a place will be like once you are there. Some important statistics to consider include:

* The student-to-faculty ratio.
* Percent of students who drop out after the first year.
* Percent of students who graduate in 4 years.

Choosing a college is certainly one of the most important decisions you make, but that doesn't mean it has to be overwhelming. If you do your homework by researching colleges thoroughly, the decision will be less painful to make and you'll feel more comfortable with it."

Author's Bio: 

Kelli Smith is the senior editor of www.Edu411.org. Edu411.org is a career education directory of colleges and universities, career training schools, and technical institutes.