Choosing the right college is one of the most important decisions you will make in your lifetime. And it’s not an exact formula to simply land on the right answer. Instead, it requires a process of weighing several factors and options, as well as putting yourself in the best position possible to get accepted. Although the process can seem overwhelming or daunting, with the right steps and preparation, you can put yourself in the best position possible for success, both now and into the future.

Did you know more than one-third of adult Americans have a bachelor’s degree (or higher)? (1) In fact, this is the highest level of education ever measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. Furthermore, it is reported that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500, with college graduates (on average) earning $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. (2)

So it’s clear that college is a very important part of life. But with over 5,300 colleges and universities in the US, (3) how do you choose the right fit? The key is starting the process early to prepare and learn what will get you on the right path to success and fulfillment. Whether you are thinking ahead to your own future, or if a loved one will be going through the process, here are some tips to ensure you are set up on the right track:

Before high school: many students associate preparing for college with their senior year of high school, when in fact, the process should actually begin much earlier in life. Even before high school, discover your passion for learning and develop a sense of curiosity. In addition to schoolwork, read for pleasure and find where your interests lie. This will not only advance your vocabulary, but will also round out your experience and knowledge base.

Furthermore, get the college conversation started early. You may even consider “adopting” a local college team to attend sporting events, visit the campus or get involved in other activities.

High School Freshman: it is important to understand that every grade counts in high school; therefore, implement discipline and good study habits early on. Consider enrolling in challenging coursework and take classes to understand what you like or don’t like. Some schools even offer AP classes to gain college credit later on.

In addition to your high school classes, think of ways you can get involved to round out your experience. This may include getting involved in extracurricular activities such as sports, music, art, faith or social clubs. Charity work or community service is also highly encouraged.

High School Sophomore: this is the time to sign up and take a practice SAT test. This is a great tool to gauge how you score on the test and identify any areas you may need to focus on for the exam. Have an open dialogue with parents, counselors and peers to identify what you like and don’t like, both in and out of the classroom.

You may consider traveling or picking up a part time job to learn new skills and broaden your horizons. Start to think about what you’d like to study in the future or what career choices may be a good fit later in life.

High School Junior: in addition to staying on top of schoolwork and classes, seek opportunities to experience a leadership role. Some examples could include leading a fundraising campaign, a class project, school event or even as captain on a sports team.

Don’t forget to take the SAT or ACT test early to see where you land and if you need additional studying or to retake the test to get the score you desire.

High School Senior: now the groundwork has been laid, you can begin applying to your desired colleges (reference below for criteria to help narrow down the search). To stay on top of the process, write down application deadlines and be sure to submit your application early. In addition, don’t forget to search and apply for scholarships.

Now that you have prepared yourself and put yourself in the best position to succeed, you need to begin narrowing down your college search to determine what school you would like to attend. There are several factors and decisions to make, but the key is to be honest with yourself and understand you don’t need to go through it alone. Seek advice and consult with family members, friends, counselors or anyone else who knows you and may be able to help navigate the criteria, such as:

  • Career: this is where most students will start their search – determining what they want to study and match a school to it. Although some students know exactly what they want to major in, others may not. If you are unsure where you start, you can use the U.S. Department of Labor’s Career Search tool to match your interests with potential careers to help get started.
  • Location: you may want to stay closer to home or experience a new place. This could be an opportunity to live by other family members who live in a different location. You should also take into account where you’d like to reside after college. Although your location isn’t permanent, it’s helpful to think to the future to help weigh the pros and cons of different locations.
  • School Size: from research or state schools to liberal art or private colleges, there are many differences between a large school versus a small one. Visit both types of campuses to see where you feel most comfortable at, and talk to others about their experience with each.
  • Learning Environment: do your research about class size, personal attention, teacher to student ratio and course curriculums.
  • Campus Culture: consider extracurricular activities (such as Greek life, intramural or college sports or other student groups or clubs) to ensure your lifestyle matches what is offered and you have an opportunity to get involved in difference types of organizations.
  • Financing: although there are several grants and scholarships you can apply for, the cost of tuition should also be considered as you weigh your options. Considering the average student loan borrower graduates with $37,172 in student loans,4 it’s important to ensure you’re planning for the high cost of this important step in your future.

Preparing and attending college is one of the most impactful and exciting parts in life, which is why it’s important to approach it in a smart way. By preparing early, consulting with family and friends and understanding all your options, you can make the right decision to maximize your true potential – before, during and after college. After all, your college will become your alma mater – and you should be proud of the experience you created for yourself.