Outside of the U.S., tuitions vary widely. In some countries—such as France and Sri Lanka—most higher education is public, meaning it’s funded by the state. In Greece, Argentina, Spain, and Sweden, universities are is practically free for everyone.) If you’re in a country with a high price tag on post-high-school education, you may want to consider enrolling in a state school or community college. You might attend one of those for two years and then transfer into a private school, saving your family two or three years of steep tuition.

All that having been said, paying for private school in America isn’t like finding a unicorn—it’s not impossible; it’s just not easy. Most private universities offer scholarships and financial aid, but you gotta work hard for them. Dylan worked through high school to get stellar grades that earned her a couple of scholarships, but she has to work a couple of jobs while she’s in school to pay for what the scholarships don’t cover and keep her college loans to a minimum. “To be honest, if I was going to be extraordinarily in debt, I would have put off college until I saved my own money,” she says. By limiting what she borrows to what she expects to earn as an entry-level worker in her field of design, she’s making sure she’s not stuck with overwhelming debt in a few years.

Even if you’ve nabbed an awesome scholarship, it probably won’t cover 100 percent of your tuition forever, because tuitions often go up, and it certainly won’t cover your living expenses. Suzy got a scholarship her first year, but it didn’t increase when her tuition did, and the financial-aid office at her school was less than understanding. “Even though my family’s financial state was at its worst, they couldn’t help me,” she says. “Scholarships based on financial need are actually a rare thing.”

This isn’t meant to discourage you—you should research and work for any financial aid you can get. After undergrad and graduate school, Stephanie came out of her schooling owing more than $75,000, a debt she’ll be paying until 2036. She has no regrets. “Unlike my house,” she says, “my education is not something anyone can repossess from me.”

How do I even pick a school?

There are thousands of schools out there—how do you choose just one? Flip a coin! No, just kidding, please don’t do that. The school search may seem overwhelming at first, but that’s only because it totally is overwhelming.

When I started looking at schools I determined the most important things I wanted in a college—lots of classes in my specific major, a big-city location, and the right campus vibe—and researched schools based on those preferences. Make a list of your personal requirements, and then start researching. A good website for this is College Board; the Princeton Review and College Confidential (a forum where you can talk to current and prospective students) are helpful resources too.

Location is an important factor for a lot of people. Do you want to be close to home, or as far away as possible from your family? Don’t be too quick to answer—Stephanie got caught up in the escape of college and didn’t even look at schools in her state, though she eventually found her dream school close to home. “Don’t immediately write off state schools,” she warns. “I know plenty of people who found their niche in large universities and saved money because of in-state tuition discounts.”

Other factors that may influence your decision: Does the school have a religious affiliation? Does it have a strong women’s-sports program? Is it all-girls or coed? Does it have a thriving and supported LGBTQ community? Does it offer campus housing and/or free health care for students? The possible questions are endless, as are the options.

If you can afford to visit schools before deciding, definitely do . When you’re there, try to sit in on a class or spend the night with a student. A word of warning: Almost all college tours are exactly the same and they’re sooo boring. The best you can get from these visits is a feel for the campus, and an opportunity to talk to people who go there—concentrate on those. (You can just visit the college’s website to learn about its majors, clubs, dorm life, and more.) At some colleges, you may be required to undergo an interview; at others the interview is optional. I say go for it: It’s a chance for the admissions counselor to get to know you beyond just your application. “Unless you’re going to a really competitive school or competing for a scholarship, the interviews are really for your benefit,” says Rachael,.“Just act confident and excited about the school and they’ll like you.” Be prepared with a shit-ton of questions—and I mean real questions, not “So how’s the party scene here?” Ask your interviewer how they would describe the personality of the students on campus, what the relationship between the students and the administration is like, what the process is for starting a club, etc.

When you eventually apply to schools, always make sure you have at least one “safety school,” aka the school you ABSOLUTELY 100% KNOW you can get into. You may have already tuned out your guidance counselor’s endless yapping about this, but you don’t know how many kids I knew in high school who applied to a school they thought was “safe” but which evidently rejected them. Ooh, burn. Seriously, make sure your “safety school” is REALLY SAFE.

Another common misconception is that there are “good” schools and “bad” schools, and that the most prestigious ones are the “best” for everyone. That really couldn’t be further from the truth. Dylan went to her first-choice art school, one with a really fancy reputation, but soon realized that she just didn’t fit there. She switched to her “safety school” because it felt like home, a feeling a lot of students don’t factor into their requirements when looking at schools. Just because a school looks A+ on paper doesn’t mean it’s going to be A+ once you get there!