Applying to colleges is like going on a bunch of first dates.
The college brochures were trying to impress you, after all. They were filled with pictures of students reading textbooks while sitting on the lawn, statements from faculty and students about how fabulous life is at their institution, and an invitation to visit the campus so that you can see how much you'd enjoy sitting on the lawn and reading textbooks, too!
Lah-dee-dah. I bet the campus is in a grove of gumdrop trees and water fountains are filled with Ecto Cooler, too. (Maybe not, but you'd never know it from the brochure, would you?)
While the brochures are full of "first date" material, what they're asking for is much more than a date. The colleges that sent you those brochures want you to dedicate the next four years or so of your life to living with them, under their roof, and within the rules that they find comfortable.
To me, that sounds more like a serious relationship than a first date. In fact, it's more like a marriage, because that institution's name will become part of your name and part of your identity. That name will show up on your resume, after all, sort of the way K-Fed will always show up on Britney's resume, no matter what she does from now on. I mean, if Britney went out tomorrow and discovered the cure for cancer, she'd be known as "the scientific genius dumb enough to marry K-Fed."
The first date doesn't tell you what someone is like in a relationship, just like the brochure doesn't tell you what a college is like once you accept the offer of admission.
So what do you do? If someone asked you to start a serious relationship after a couple of dates, you might start by doing some research. Check out their Facebook, find out if their relationship status is set to "married," for example. Look for wall posts suggesting this person has some habits or baggage that makes them a bad choice. Read status messages and look for statements that you can't tolerate hearing from your significant other.
Researching colleges should work much the same way. Use a search engine to look for the institution's name with the word "censorship," for example. See how many times the institution has been called out for censoring free expression on sites like the Student Press Law Center or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Search Twitter for status messages from students that indicate the college has been treating its students with less than total respect.
Don't skip this step. If you'll indulge my mixed metaphor, the college that was soft-spoken, handsome, and polite in the brochure might easily turn out to be the University of Chris Brown once you matriculate.