This article was originally written for, now a part of

With over 4,000 colleges in the U.S., the prospect of whittling that number down to the single school of your dreams is a daunting task.

But like most challenges in life, doing your own research and kicking a few tires in the process is the best way to find the college that meets your unique needs. That goes double for first-generation college students who, statistically, are more likely to drop out of college before their first year is complete.

There’s no need for that to happen to you. In fact, you can significantly increase your chances of a four-year stay, and a diploma, if you lay the foundation for a great college experience with some efficient research up front.

That means running a gauntlet of key college issues—notably the size, location, academic standing, cost, campus support and diversity. Above all, it means finding out whether you’ll be happy and successful at the school you attend.

Where to get started? Try these five tips:

1. Narrow it down with a checklist. Start your research with an open mind but be realistic. Start off by determining what fits you best in terms of the following:“More schools are starting programs specifically targeting first-generation and/or low-income students.”

  • Size: schools vary from less than 1,000 up to 40,000 students
  • Location: do you want to stay in-state or move away?
  • Academic standing: does a school’s reputation matter to you?
  • Cost and financial aid: find out the tuition and the percent of students who receive financial aid and at what percent of the tuition (surprisingly, some of the most expensive schools also offer the most financial aid to students from low-income families)
  • Campus support: does the school have a program that supports first-generation students? More and more schools are starting programs specifically targeting first-generation and/or low-income students.
  • Student diversity: are you more comfortable in an environment with people from all walks of life or those who are more like you?

2. Make sure your top colleges offer areas you want to study. Go to the resource websites and books listed here to review the academic options at colleges that have drawn your interest. Another good resource is the website of the specific colleges you’re evaluating; check the academic choices, and evaluate the possible hurdles you’ll face if you go to school there. If you don’t know what you want to study, then make sure the colleges you’re looking at offer a broad range of majors.

3. Talk to college students who have “been there and done that.” For the straight skinny on a school’s credibility and reputation, talk to students and graduates who have gone to the school you’re considering; try to speak to first-generation college-goers. Ask the admissions office for some contact names, or better yet, contact alumni groups from select colleges. They’re more likely to give you the real deal on the school through an unfiltered lens.

4. Embrace the campus visit. There’s no substitute for researching a college than by going there yourself. Every credible college offers an official campus tour, so definitely sign up and take it. Sometimes just going on a campus tour of the nearest college (regardless of your interest in the school) is helpful research to determine what you should look for in other schools.

If cost is an issue, most colleges have virtual tours online on the college’s website. If you can make an on-campus visit, also check out the coffee houses, restaurants, and lounges that are on- and off-campus. There you’ll meet college students who can fill you in on that wish list of research areas, like academics, cost and financing, and the campus experience. And be sure to check out our Mastering the College Visit article.

5. Select your top 10. Don’t overburden yourself with too much information. Aim for 10 or so schools that hold your interest, and split them into three groups: two or three “dream” schools, where you’d love to go, regardless of cost, your academic standing, etc.; three or four “target” colleges that fit your profile and where you feel you have a good chance of being accepted; and three or four “safety” schools, which may not meet all of your criteria but you definitely meet or surpass their admissions requirements. Build a checklist that includes academics, cost, quality of the campus experience and locality. Then research each school according to those criteria.

Make sure to give yourself plenty of time before you have to make a decision and apply to a school (normally in the fall of your senior year in high school).

Do all that, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to pick the colleges that offer you the best shot at a great campus experience.