I visited my first university in 8th grade while on vacation in Santa Barbara. I was absolutely mortified walking onto the campus that other students would think we were weird for touring their school. It only took me about 5 minutes to realize how large UC Santa Barbara actually is and that the students didn't really care about our presence on their campus. My dad tried to sell me on the ocean views and beachfront campus as we drove down Isla Vista casually stopping for a mass of scantily clad beach-cruiser-riding students. All I could think is "I hate this school." Growing up across the street from the beach really made this school not appeal to me. Perhaps it was just me growing out of my awkward puberty phase, but I really did not think I had the body to rock a bikini 24/7 either. I was about to start high school and I was already being made to think about college; it seemed absolutely ludicrous. It was not until application season rolled around that I truly appreciated having toured the majority of schools I applied to and having an idea of what I was looking for in a university.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but it doesn't say everything about a school.
If you are seriously considering attending a university, I strongly suggest visiting it before you commit. There are plenty of schools I thought I would love, but after seeing them I could not see myself there for four years. A fair amount of students apply to schools on a whim that they have seen in pictures or just have heard of, and sometimes that works out really well for them. However, a good deal of them end up transferring or coming home after a year. Everything about the campus is relative, so be sure you really like it if you want to go there.
Weather is important.
If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that weather is not something you should consider when you look at colleges, I would be rich. WEATHER TOTALLY MATTERS! Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real form of depression (especially if you are a California native and used to soaking up the sun 99% of the year). As someone who is especially sensitive to weather, I narrowed my top choices down to the West Coast. If you are someone who can tolerate -15 degree weather in the dead of winter, then more power to you! Be open to new experiences, but know what you can tolerate. If living in Arizona's heat will make you miserable, then you probably shouldn't go there.
Public or private?
There are definitely benefits to both public and private schools. Public schools tend to be a bit more cost-friendly (especially if you will be paying in-state tuition). Private schools have the resources to back up that extra cost. More teachers per capita of students. Calling centers that don't put you on hold for 3 hours. A lot of schools will still have large lecture halls and small one on one discussions regardless if they are public or private. It is really up to you what you feel most comfortable with.
City slicker, beach bum, out in the boonies???
The location of your school is really important to the kind of experience you will be able to have on campus. Consider where the school is in regard to the airport, public transportation, the state's biggest city. If you don't want to take a 3-hour shuttle out of campus to the airport in order to go home for breaks, then that is something to take into consideration. Do you have internship opportunities close by your school? Is that what you're looking for? Do you need to be by an ocean or a big city or cows in the middle of a field? If finding a party is your biggest priority, then you can literally pick any college in the country and be satisfied.
Know what the social networks look like at different schools. Some schools are Greek life or no life. If you go there, are you interested in getting involved in Greek life or no? Other schools do not have a Greek system and are able to form really strong bonds among dorm mates. In schools in big cities where on-campus housing is not really big after freshmen year, it may be harder to make and keep friends. Try to meet some people who attend the school and get a feel for how they made their friends and what they do with their friends.
What time should you start thinking about all of this?
Personally, I think your freshman year of high school should be when you start looking at schools. This is the first time your grades really count for something and if you find a school you really want to go to early on it will likely make you work harder to achieve the grades that school requires. It happens more than one would think that people decide they love a university in their junior year, but it is out-of-reach by then. Realizing what schools are attainable for yourself and doing your best to prepare yourself to be accepted to said university is the best thing you can do. With all of that said, do not singularly put all your eggs in one basket. There is always the possibility that you may not get in to your top choice and in that case, you need to have other schools you would be comfortable attending in your back pocket.
Picking a school that is right for you.
Sure, we would all like to be Elle Woods and get into Harvard within a few scenes of studying in the sorority house, but that is not very realistic. There are schools all over the country for students of all academic abilities and learning styles. With the pressure put on students nowadays by parents, schools, and society, it makes sense that students feel panicked when applying to schools. The most important thing is sit down and be realistic with family, counselors, and yourself. If you have a GPA far below average for UCLA, odds are you won't be going to UCLA. There are plenty of schools that you can be accepted to and will likely flourish at. There is also nothing wrong with taking a gap year or going to junior college. It saves money and can allow you to transfer to a college that was perhaps out of your reach at the end of high school. There is no wrong option as long as you are comfortable with that option.
Do applications matter?
YES. Some schools base their admissions process solely on numbers (SAT/ACT score and GPA), while others take into account supplements and personal statements. Be sure you know which schools use which methods and if you are seriously considering that school be sure to take your supplements and personal statements seriously as well. Include things on your application that you actually participated in and did work for. Universities want to see students with passion. Conveying your passion for something you did during high school or something that really influenced you is vital. Listing clubs you "managed" in high school to "save the turtles," when in all actuality you didn't do shit is not what they want to see. This is your chance to brag about your own accomplishments... and no you can't make them up.
The most rewarding part of the college search is getting accepted into universities that really want you there. Normal people get rejected from universities and people who cheated get into awesome universities that they don't reserve. The world is an unfair place and that is out of our humanly control. Knowing that you did the best to find a school that best fits your needs and you were admitted to that school is what should triumph all other notions. This is your time to shine and your future to make.