Spring is a pivotal time at most high schools. “Seniors, ripe with the excitement of college acceptances, are looking forward to new beginnings,” says Greg Roberts, UVA dean of admission. Juniors—and some industrious sophomores—realize, with some urgency, that they should start thinking about their lives after high school. By summer, it is likely their college search will have kicked into high gear.

Dean of admission Greg Roberts

Finding the right college should be invigorating, not overwhelming, Roberts says. To be successful, students need to “own” their college search rather than the reverse. Here are some tips to help students take charge of the process.

Be reflective: Self-reflection has never been more important. Think about what you like or dislike, write it down and allow that list to be your guide. Match up your academic interests with your personal goals.

Research, research, research: If you can’t visit campuses in person, visit online. Go beyond the virtual tour. Don’t forget about size, location, climate and community. Read admissions blogs and Twitter accounts, scour department Web sites and seek out real-time interaction through online chats. These resources are available long before you apply.

Plan your visit: Visiting is the best way to gauge the personality of a school. Take a tour. Visit classes. Meet with professors. Eat in the dining halls. Eavesdrop on conversations to get an idea of the student experience.

Start early: Most schools’ applications are available midsummer. Make a list of all you’ve accomplished. Start thinking about how you would describe yourself to a total stranger. Presenting your achievements in a thoughtful, concise way takes time.

Be yourself: Don’t try to craft the “perfect application.” It doesn’t exist. Have fun with this process and let your personality shine.