When kids dream of one day going to college, they may think of places like Stanford, USC or UCLA. What they don't know -- and what teenagers who are closer to actually graduating from high school often don't know -- is that there are many more choices out there that may be better for them.

As high school counselors, we sometimes tell our students that picking the perfect college is sort of like buying a pair of shoes. You have to experience it to find out if you feel comfortable there. Is it the right "fit" for you? Do you want to be around a lot of people -- 20,000 or more? Or would you rather be in a smaller setting with, say, 5,000 fellow students? Do you want the "dorm experience"? Do you want a roommate? Two? Three? Are you ready to leave your hometown? Or would you rather move away and live near the beach, the mountains or in a big city? And, do these colleges offer the your intended major or area of interest? These are all questions that soon-to-be college students should be asking themselves.

Once they've come up with their wish lists, students can then hop online and begin their research. Coming up with 10 or fewer options is probably wise. Then they must ask, how realistic are these options for me? Students need to research the minimum grade-point-average needed to attain entry into their dream universities. They need to look at SAT/ACT test score requirements as well. If a university on their list is truly out of reach, academically speaking, they should probably cross it off. Not to say they can't one day end up there after fulfilling their undergraduate course work elsewhere.

Acceptance into college has become more competitive than ever. Grades matter, but so do activities like sports, extracurriculars, community service, outreach and leadership experience. Colleges and universities are looking for "well-rounded" students. Those who have branched out from their comfort zones to experience new things and who participate in activities that help people other than themselves. Now, that doesn't mean that a student should join every single club offered and volunteer every single weekend while attempting to keep up with Honors and AP courses. Students should simply play on their interests and talents. Do they excel in math and science? Then join the science club and compete in Math Field Day. Do they lean more toward the humanities? Then consider things like theater, choir or forensics.

Once students have narrowed down their potential college choices, virtual tours and live tours are advisable. They will truly be able to tell if the college is a place they'd like to spend the next four years. For some students, it's not possible to visit these colleges in person. That's why events like Kern County College Night are so vital. With more than 100 colleges and universities in one place at one time, it's a great way to meet representatives and gather information. Students can attend workshops that focus on everything from how to pay for college to how to pick the perfect college. Other sessions offered at the Sept. 9 event at Rabobank include attaining entry as an NCAA athlete, researching and earning scholarships, writing a personal statement and beginning at a community college like Bakersfield College or Taft with the intention of transferring.

For some parents, just the thought of sending a child away to college can be overwhelming. It's expensive, the application process confusing and the choices many, but the sooner you begin, the less daunting the challenge. Although college night is geared toward junior and senior students, it's never too early for parents to begin helping their teen investigate the options and begin the process of discovering the choice that will be right for them.

Wendy Ward is a school counselor for the Kern High School District and President of the Kern High School District Counselors' Association.