The New York Times blog The Choice, published this great advice today:

You’ve made it to the critical midwinter transition in your college search, a time when academic and personal maturity has set you up to dig into research and self-assessment in earnest.

Here’s where it gets good. In February, it’s about transitioning your college preparation from abstract planning to tangible tasks.

Juniors, here is your college admissions checklist for February:

Express, and Assess, Yourself

You’ve likely made headway in identifying the essential questions that drive your educational priorities and practicalities: What kind of learner are you? What kind of people, activities, communities and settings bring out the best and the worst in you? What role will money play in your search? Where might you be able to get in?

Taking stock helps frame your hopes for college and yields purposeful answers about who you are and what you value. Pay attention to the patterns of your life. Write down your discoveries. Don’t be afraid to allow your vision to shift as you evolve and you better understand yourself against the backdrop of admissions.

Experiment with expressing yourself on paper by beginning an extracurricular resume and noting vignettes from your life that reflect the values you’ve identified. These will become the basis of your future applications.

Put Your Research Skills to Work

Think about it: You have a wealth of relevant experience from your academic life to apply to investigating colleges. Frame the process as a long-term research project, one where you’ll focus on questions that matter most to you.

Consider the strategies that have worked best in your classes and put them to work here, using guidebooks, college Web sites, current college students and recent graduates as your primary sources.

Just as you would for any term paper, be sure you trust the source, and don’t limit your research to superficial glances. Look hard beyond institutional marketing and into the depths of college Web sites to course catalogs, faculty members’ biographies and student media. Read the National Survey of Student Engagement, even though it’s denser than its ranking counterparts. Compare and contrast the outcomes of net price calculators, even when it’s more fun to imagine college paying for itself.

As you go, keep track of the specific professors, classes and programs that interest you. You’ll thank yourself for recording these observations when you use them later to craft meaningful application essays and supplements. The patterns you find will also help you draw thoughtful conclusions about the colleges and yourself.

Visit a Range of Colleges

Whether close to home or further afield, seek out campuses of different sizes, styles and settings, and reflect on how you react to the differences in environs.

Ask yourself: Do I feel as if I belong here? Assess which institutional elements are more and less negotiable to you. Be sure to step off the official tour and into the student union for conversation with passers-by, take in an event and look over bulletin boards and newspapers for signs of authentic student life.

Leave time to soak it in. Take notes and pictures to recall your findings.

Ditch ‘College Chatter’ for Productive Communication Habits

While college chatter among friends is inevitable and sometimes helpful, find ways to manage it early. Too much can cloud your vision and become distracting. Focus your energy instead on the way colleges communicate with you. Develop a filing system to manage the many e-mail communications from colleges appealing to you, since these will play a role in demonstrating interest to them later on.

Tend to the relationships that will support your applications to college. Reach out to your college counselor so she or he can guide you appropriately and advocate for you knowledgeably. Make yourself known to your teachers so that they can write substantive recommendations. Periodically share the evolution of your thoughts with your parents so they can trust you’re making good progress and support your goals.

Keep Testing in Check

If you have not yet taken your first SAT or ACT tests, consider registering now for the March or April exams. Unless the Preliminary SAT exam was a breeze for you, you might try both tests to see which one suits you more.

Save SAT Subject Tests, if needed, for the late spring so that you can benefit from a full year of course content before taking them. But be aware; registration deadlines can whoosh by you if you’re not paying attention!

Never allow standardized tests to distract from the priority of your classes. You should absolutely familiarize yourself with the tests through whatever methodology works best for you; test prep books, online tutorials, tutors and formal classes are all fine. But you should never allow standardized test prep to take over your life. Maintain a measured attitude toward standardized testing as the buzz around them ramps up. If you anticipate testing will be an obstacle to your candidacy, consider investigating schools where testing is optional or flexible.

Yes, it’s February, and the college search process is gaining steam as passive exploration morphs into active assessment and research. You’re primed and ready to manage the building momentum, and, as you do, you’ll see your distinct college vision taking shape. Keep working at it in manageable bites and, before you know it, you’ll have arrived at your future alma mater. Off you go!