Ask 7 Questions When Starting Your College Search

What, exactly, should you look for in a college? You'll certainly want an academic program that suits your abilities and interests.

But the school you attend will become much more than the place that grants your degree; by graduation, it will have been home for nearly one-fifth of your life.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you work on finding the right fit.

1. Why go to college? Are you looking for an exhilarating intellectual challenge? Preparation for a career in nursing or Web design? Are you more inclined to spend late nights hanging out with friends or buried in the lab or library?

Your answers will suggest the right balance between academics and extracurricular activities, and whether a general liberal arts or more focused, skills-oriented program suits you. A college offering a wealth of majors is probably the best choice for someone with no strong direction yet.

[Check out 11 hot college majors that lead to jobs.]

2. How do I learn best? If you don't like to be called on, a large lecture format may be your preference.

Those who crave discussion and problem-solving and collaborative learning will probably be happier in the small seminars more typical of liberal arts colleges and honors programs within large universities, or at schools that have built in programs to engage students, such as a first-year experience or learning communities.

At some schools, writing is part of the learning experience across the curriculum; at others, students must prepare a comprehensive thesis or research project to graduate.

Does professional work experience sound like a necessity to you, through internships or community service? If you do your best schoolwork while regularly blowing off steam playing soccer, you may want to cross off any choices where you can't.

3. How do I handle pressure? At a school where the course work is highly demanding and your fellow freshmen have transcripts at least as studded with A's and APs as yours, you may struggle just to stay in the middle of the pack.

Even if you have the grades to make a highly selective college, you may be happier - and ultimately more successful - on a campus where you can stand out and in a culture oriented toward cooperation rather than intense competition.

[Find out how to apply to college if you don't have all A's.]

4. How independent am I? In theory, it may sound liberating to move as far from mom and dad as possible. But consider how often you might want to zip home for the weekend. One big reason students opt to transfer is that they want to be closer to home.

5. What activities matter? Someone who has volunteered at a homeless shelter during high school may realize that sororities and fraternities hold zero appeal, and that it would be great to be among politically active students or on a campus with a deep commitment to service.

Someone else with a passion for skiing may feel deprived living in the heart of Chicago or Dallas. And an avid sports fan might want to avoid a college with no serious teams.

A visit to campus will give you a feel for a school's culture. You can also ask current students what they do and don't like about the extracurricular life.

[Use these 10 tips for an effective college visit.]

6. How key is diversity? Consider how you respond to people who think or act differently than you do. Perhaps you're a conservative who is energized by liberals; others feel freer to open up when they're part of a well-represented political, religious or ethnic group.

Additionally, a look at course offerings and the list of student organizations on campus can give you a feel for the representation of viewpoints. Speaking to current students who have a background similar to your own can be informative, too.

7. How much can I afford? College counselors advise parents to be frank about their financial limits, and preferably before the search process begins. How much can they contribute from savings and income? Are they willing and able to borrow?

If the family means are modest, a pricey private college isn't out of the question. But your focus may shift to those with a fat aid budget. Recognizing your strengths and limitations now is the surest way to avoid disappointment later.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.