Hi John - It's a simple question with a complicated answer because each student and family is different and presents their own challenges to answering the question. As a College Advisor, our job is to combine getting to know the student and family, with knowledge about the college application process and about many individual colleges.
I start with a questionnaire that the student and both parents fill out separately which gives me an idea of their goals. The student then completes Interest Inventories to help us understand not only their career interests but their personality traits and the environments and ways in which they learn best.
Then I help the student start researching all aspects of their interests and the resulting college choices. Once they become empowered with the knowledge of how to achieve their goals and objectives, the college options quickly fall into place.
Each student and family requires a personalized approach given all kinds of factors such as the obvious ones like financial constraints, academic performance, career interests but even the less obvious factors like feel of the college, preference for geography, campus atmosphere, available resources, etc. It's amazing to see how even students who seem very similar on the outside (grades, interests) can end up having very different lists. By walking through our process, we hope that each student has a college list that makes their post high school career the catapult to a successful and happy life!
Let me know if I can answer any more questions!