03/14/2012 01:33 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

'You' U: How to Narrow Down Your College Choices

In my experience, choosing a college these days is like buying a car. Way too much information is available that can drive a potential college student crazy when trying to find that perfect fit. I mean, does it really matter if you're allowed to have a full-sized fridge in your freshman year dorm room? Do you really need that eighth cup holder?

Just how do you navigate the college-search process? Sticking with the car analogy: like a new car, every school has a unique feature. That you have to pay for. Keep in mind, choosing a college is probably the most significant decision that you get to make as a teenager! Some of you in private school can't even choose what you want to wear everyday!

So as a former college-applicant and current college admission professional, I want to offer you some helpful tips when choosing which schools to apply to:

1. DO NOT start looking at colleges before the summer between your sophomore and junior years of high school. Trust me; you will be changing your mind 100 times until that point. Chances are, you'll start dating someone that wants to go to school in California or you'll discover that you have a passion for medieval torture tactics and want a school with a top-notch program. It's just not worth the stress of trying to narrow down a college as a high school freshman. Unless you're one of those super genius kids, then you should be working on your Ph.D. right now and not reading this blog.

2. Use the Internet sparingly. I wish I could tell you to just park your butt at the local bookstore with one of those massive college indexes and peruse through each school alphabetically (remember, I'm speaking from personal experience here). While these books are very good at helping you find schools by region, academic programs, student population, etc., the only issue is that they are usually outdated with regards to their numbers and statistics. I would say that the college's website is the best resource, but you know that this is the only outlet where the school can put their best foot forward and not show you the 'dark side' of campus with the 1970s architecture. But with these forces combined, you have the best recipe for determining what the school is really about. Do yourself a favor and make your own assumptions about a school. Do not let the 'unofficial' information on the Internet determine where you should be a student. Give the school a chance!

3. Only apply to FIVE schools. This was probably the best advice I ever received in high school. And of course I didn't take it. I only applied to four. The rubric for those lucky five is as follows: 1: Your dream (reach) school. 2-4: Schools you have a reasonable chance of getting into and can afford. 5. Back-up school. Enough said.

4. VISIT. Moving away from the car analogy: finding a college is like trying on a wedding dress. You know what school is the best for you when you see yourself wearing it.

So, after you have turned 16, made your own conclusions about which schools you like, have narrowed down your 5 schools, and have visited the campus -- then you can apply.

Now some of you may be grumbling because your family's financial situation, your grades, or other logistical issues will not allow you to choose whatever school you like. For you, let me offer you one more piece of advice. Don't be afraid to be realistic. No school is worth 20+ years of insurmountable debt and misery. I can guarantee you that of the approximately 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States, you can find four that will want you and that you will like, (remember I said the first one is your dream school). So do your homework and find your schools!

And yes, I got into all four schools I applied to. I'm kind of afraid of rejection.