Parents' and students' top concerns about the college planning process are typically how to find the right college and how to pay for that college. The college-planning process is ready to go into high gear for juniors — and now is the time to start determining the colleges that are the right fit.

The overall culture of the college may play as big a role in your future success as your degree. Figuring out what’s important to you will help you find the best fit. It's important to consider your head, heart and hand when choosing a school. Does the school you are looking at provide the major for you career path? Is it a school that you will enjoy attending? Can you and your family afford it?

There are many factors to consider when starting the process of choosing a school that is the best fit. The cost of college is one thing that most consider during the college search process. Not all colleges and universities have the same price tag. There are a variety of ways to cut your costs. Most schools offer financial aid, scholarships and work-study programs. It is important to determine your true out-of-pocket cost, not just the sticker price. Now is the time to determine if you are a Category 1, Category 2 or Category 3 family — will you receive financial-need-based aid regardless of the school you choose? Or will you be in a position for merit-based aid only?

When evaluating schools and cost, it is important to consider how many students graduate on time. At some schools, only a small fraction graduate within four years; it may take an average of five or even six years to get a degree. That can increase the cost for your degree substantially. Not only do the later years of college cost more because of inflating costs and higher fees, but many forget to consider the fact that each additional year in college is an additional year not earning an income. Each university should be able to provide you with the data on how many students graduate with a degree and how long it takes to complete their education.

Some schools have limited major options, or have very limited programs. Make sure you understand what majors the school is known for, and speak to alumni who graduated with that major. Most colleges have Facebook pages that will help you find students and alumni to contact. If you’re interested in a particular major, reaching out to alumni in the field can be helpful. Connecting with graduates can give you a unique perspective. They can give you information on how prepared they were after graduation for their careers and how easy or hard it was to find a job. You can also search for graduates from a particular school on LinkedIn and send them a message with questions about their experience. Many professionals are happy to answer questions from prospective students about their alma mater. Starting your college search with the basics will help you identify the colleges that will best suit you academically and personally.

The Princeton Review is a great resource to help compare schools. There is information available on each school’s prestige, cost, academics, demographics and quality of life. By researching the information on the schools you are considering, you can determine which one is a best fit for your desired career.

Campus size is another factor that can impact whether or not a school is a fit for you. Going from a small high school to a large college can be a difficult transition. But smaller schools may not offer the opportunities that are important to you.

The student-teacher ratio is something many students overlook. The size of a class can have an impact on how you learn and what individual attention you can expect. Each school has this information available for you — and when you narrow down your search, it is important to sit in on some classes to get a firsthand glimpse of what to expect in a class.

Once you have your list of potential schools, narrowing it down can become difficult. Schools may sound the same — so, if possible, visit the school in person to get a feel for the campus. Scheduling a tour with the university admissions office allows you to see the campus, talk with current students and ask questions about what to expect. You can get a great idea of what the school is like, how big the classes are, what the dorms look like, and what activities are available on-campus. A campus tour is great, but keep in mind that the tour is prepared to highlight the college. You won’t hear about any of the downsides or get insights into what an actual day on campus is like. If possible, schedule a night on campus. You can attend classes, eat in the cafeteria, and spend the night in the dorm. You may get a completely different impression than you did on the official tour.

Take notes after each visit — and rank them according to the items that are important to you in a college. Most students find it helpful to video portions of the visit to help remember what they liked or didn’t like about each school.

When choosing a school, you should be practical and consider all of the factors — but don’t ignore your feelings. Sometimes, your final decision comes down to pure emotion. When you’ve narrowed down your list, ask yourself if can you picture yourself there.

Take advantage of Michigan College Planning’s College Planning workshop — there are many free workshops scheduled in the area. Visit their website or www.tcaps.net/programs/leap for locations and dates. The workshops are informative and include steps you can take right now to assure you understand the cost of attendance and how you can afford college.

Vicki L. Beam is the owner of Michigan College Planning located in Traverse City. She encourages questions and comments about college planning. Contact Michigan College Planning at (231)947-0203, by email at vicki@michigancollegeplanning.com and at www.michigancollegeplanning.com.

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