I applied for college around three years ago, in 2016. Looking back, the thing that sticks out the most to me is what I desperately wish I had done during my last years in high school. I honestly believe that more than half the battle goes into researching colleges that fit you.

I definitely identify as first-generation, but the truth is, if we saw this issue as black and white, I’m not. Both of my parents went to college—but in a different country. They’re educated, but most of my formative years were spent cobbling together jobs to get more money, and desperately trying to sustain ourselves. Our bleak reality just enforced my parent’s wishes: you must be educated and you must do better than us. I always knew that I was going to college, but I saw it more as an inevitable future that I stumbled into—not a hard and arduous process that took a lot of planning and effort.

The actual truth is that I stumbled into everything that I learned about college applications. I knew the big stuff: take the SATs, demonstrate rigorous coursework, and show commitment and interest in after-school activities. That was it. That summed up my entire knowledge on how to apply to college. The summer before my senior year, I was scrolling through Snapchat and saw that a friend of mine posted a picture of the Common Application website, with some caption about starting the college application process. I blanked, and then a panic settled in. Was that how I applied to college? That’s what I had to fill out? How did I get to my senior year of high school and not know that the college application process started with the Common App? I scrambled to get everything ready, but it was hard. I was juggling a million and one things. I was taking an unprecedented level of AP classes my senior year—the most that anyone had ever taken in one semester up until that time. I was the leader of so many organizations, I was applying to college, but I faced so many other issues. My phone broke down, and my computer followed. I used a family car that was almost as old as I was to cart around my siblings and I to school and back in our extremely suburban county. It was not long before that car joined the legion of broken possessions. The only access that I had to the internet was a tablet and my mother’s old computer, although I could only borrow it for a few short hours at a time. I crammed computer-dependent assignments into my lunch time: the only time I could swing by the library. I spent my afternoons in cross country practice, and battling my ADHD over textbooks and blank Word documents. Whatever time I had was definitely not spent researching the thousands of colleges in the United States. The only colleges I knew were the ones known everywhere.

At one point in time, I deep-rooted anxiety of never being good enough took hold and I applied to as many colleges as I could find. I applied to Emory when one of my closest friends said that he went to a soccer camp there and never realized it was an actual campus. He would probably choose it if he had to stay in Georgia. A year later when I was studying in my residence hall, someone asked how I chose to apply here and why I chose this place if I was planning on going into computer science, a field that is certainly not Emory’s strength. How could I explain that he and I came from completely different worlds? I never would have known that researching a college’s strengths was also a part of the journey. I dropped computer science soon after.

What I have learned is that applying to colleges starts way before starting the Common Application, the Coalition Application, or that school’s individual application. It starts with researching colleges. So start with asking yourself, what do you want to do? What type of things are important to you? Where do you want to live? Public or private? Liberal arts or technical? Spend time really knowing what’s out there before you start applying.

And please, I beg of you, ask for help.