I love this question because the people who ask it are in such a great period of their lives... gaining independence as they move into adulthood, searching for potential careers -- and the best schools to help them achieve their dreams. (And it's also a great time for adults who are now finally getting the chance to go -- or return to -- college.)
While I will give you what I think are the most important steps in choosing a college, I truly feel that you'll know the right college for you when you see it or visit it. While you want to be challenged and inspired in college, it also has to feel right to you. College is a major investment of time and resources, so take the time to get it right.
Here's how to find the best college for you:
Step 1: Determine what you might like to study or major in at college
You don't need to have an answer here -- many first year students are "undeclared" -- but if you do have an idea, then you'll be able to look for schools that have a program that matches your interest.
Step 2: Develop a list of criteria you want to use to evaluate and weed out colleges
There are lots of possible criteria, such as degrees offered, majors and minors, location, costs, size, quality/reputation/ranking, placement record, faculty size, and more...
Step 3: Compile a list of possible colleges and universities
There are lots of resources on and off the Web to help you develop a list of potential colleges. Check out these college planning resources.
Step 4: Gather all your resources and information about each school you're considering
The best bet? Go to each college's Website and gather the necessary information.
Step 5: Use the criteria from Step 2 to narrow your list of colleges to a manageable number
Get the list down to a number you and your family feel comfortable with.
Step 6: Visit the colleges on your lists from Step 5
Ideally you should visit every college on your short list, but if you can't visit it personally, get a video or take a virtual tour.
Step 7: Apply to the schools that made the cut after the first six steps
Carefully complete all the applications and submit them to the schools.
Step 8: While you're waiting to hear back from the colleges you applied to, hit the internet to find scholarships
Again, there are lots of resources on and off the Web to find scholarship information -- just don't get scammed.
Step 9: Make the final choice from among the schools that accepted you
Certainly the hardest choice of all... be sure to review all your notes, look at the financial aid packages, and make your final decision!
One final bit of wisdom. If you get to college and find it is simply not right for you, please do not be afraid of transferring to another school... you'll have to go through a similar process, and you may lose a few credit hours, but it will be much more worth it than suffering through four years at a school where you feel you don't belong.