If you're just coming to the college search process and you haven't had much exposure to the different types of schools out there, you might asking yourself a question:

How do I get started building a college list if I don't know what I want to do in college?

Many high school juniors just have no idea how factors like campus size, location, program types, extracurricular activities, etc. factor into their college preferences. As a result, they avoid thinking about it as long as they can—until deadlines are suddenly looming.

I'm reminded of a student named Maddy. On her first day, during spring of her junior year, she came in completely stressed out. She felt like she was already behind, given the fact that several of her friends already knew their top choices of colleges they'd be applying to in fall. But she also felt paralyzed because it seemed like there was so much pressure to decide what she would study and how that would ultimately support her career.

I suggested that we start things a little more simply. Instead of creating the near-impossible task of finding the perfect college that would satisfy all of her yet-unknown needs, why not start learning about a range of different schools that she might find appealing for a variety of reasons?

That's where the Free Association Exercise came in.

We sat down on our laptops. I asked her for the name of a college her friends had been tossing around. Within the hour, we had 20 names on our list. Not only that, but we had already identified two criteria that would eventually be the defining factors of Maddy's final list in the fall.

Sometimes, the key is just to get started—even when you're not sure where it's all headed.

The Free Association List Building Exercise is the easiest place to start.