By Randi MazzellaApplying to college can be overwhelming and stressful for high school students. With over 4,000 four-year colleges in the United States, it is easy to feel confused. Here’s how to get started.1. When to startA good time to start thinking about college is the end of sophomore year or beginning of junior year. It may seem early, but with early decision applications due in the beginning of senior year, it’s important to get a head start, especially if you want to visit colleges that are out of town.2. How to startStudents should begin their college search by asking themselves what they need to be happy and successful in college — academically and socially. This is a really broad question and for many students the answer may be “I have no idea,” and that’s OK. Focus on answering some smaller, more specific questions such as:Do I want a very spirited school with Division One sports teams or would I prefer a quieter environment?Do I learn best in large or small classes?Am I interested in Greek life?Would I prefer an enclosed campus or do I want to go to school that is integrated with a big city?Am I comfortable going to a school I have to fly to or would I prefer to stay within driving distance of my hometown?How much financial aid will I need?The answers to these types of questions will provide students with some criteria upon which to start their college search.3. How to find infoThe Internet is a valuable tool for researching potential college choices. Every college has their own website that prospective students can look through to find out more about campus life. Virtual tours, first person-narratives and calendars of current events on campus can all be helpful in evaluating a college. In addition, there are websites that offer opinions from current students about their experience that can also be useful, but proceed with caution and do not let one person’s opinion deter you from further researching a college that interests you.4. Get advice from your guidance counselorOnce you’ve done some research, schedule a meeting with your high school guidance counselor. Share your thoughts on what you’re looking for in a college experience. Your counselor should be able to use this insight, along with your grades and test scores, to help you come up with a preliminary list of schools to investigate further.5. Schedule college visitsIf possible, try to schedule some campus visits to schools you are most interested in. Campus visits are one of the best ways to determine if a school is a good fit. In addition to going to information sessions and attending tours, try to do other things on campus that will give you a real feel for the school. Consider sitting in on a class, meeting a professor, or having lunch with a current student to see if the school is a place where you would feel comfortable and be excited to attend.6. Narrow down your choicesAfter you’ve seen a few schools, go back to your list and start narrowing down your choices. Go back to your guidance counselor to discuss what you learned from your research and visits. Be honest about what you liked and what you didn’t. Your counselor may be able to give additional suggestions based on your feedback.7. Stay calm! There’s a school for everyoneAbove all, try not to get too stressed about the college search process. There is a school for everyone. Be open-minded. Sometimes students have preconceived ideas of where they see themselves attending, such as a parent’s alma mater, but the school may not be a realistic choice. Conversely, there may be a school that you’ve never heard of that’s actually a great fit based on your potential major or interests. Don’t get too caught up in prestige or rankings. Instead, keep the focus on finding a college that is a good fit for you.Get matched to colleges that are perfect for you with our College Match.About the authorRandi is a freelance writer and mother of three. She has written extensively about teen life and the college admissions process. Her work has appeared online and in print publications including TeenLife, Your Teen, Raising Teens, About.com, and Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.