Getting started with online dating can be a challenge, especially for those of us who didn’t grow up with the digital world as a mainstay of social connections. (For a recap, see my recent article on “Common Online Dating Fears.”) But there’s no doubt that it’s gone mainstream, and any stigma that once dogged online dating has faded. According to a recent New York Times article, studies have shown that between 2007 and 2009, 21 percent of heterosexual couples and 61 percent of same-sex couples met online.

Women in particular are still wary of the potential risks involved. You can’t count on a dating website to adequately vet all its users, so it’s important to take sensible precautions: for instance, being careful not to reveal any identifying information about yourself until you feel at ease with a prospective date, and meeting new prospects only in well-populated public places. But the vast majority of participants have good experiences with online dating, and if you observe commonsense safeguards, you are likely to as well. With careful scanning and patience, it’s possible to find potential dates of remarkable compatibility.

Almost all online dating sites use a similar format: you post a description and pictures of yourself. You’ll be asked basic questions about yourself and the type of person you’re looking for: age range, geographical area, personal interests. All of this goes into your online profile.

Many women have difficulty with their profiles. How do you present yourself in the best light without exaggerating or appearing vain? And how much information is too much? Here are suggestions for putting together a first-time profile, or giving a tune-up to one that’s been up for awhile.

Angle your profile to the type of person you’re looking for. Are you interested in finding someone arty? A corporate professional? An outdoor type? Your description should emphasize the aspects of your personality and experience that are compatible with the type of person you’re interested in meeting.

Be honest—but don’t overdo it. According to the New York Times article, some 81 percent of people on online dating sites misrepresent their height, weight, or age in their profiles. Women tend to shave off pounds, men add to their height. (Fewer men or women misrepresent their ages, since that’s harder to deny.) Researchers say that profiles often present an “idealized self,” and that “a certain amount of fibbing is socially acceptable—even necessary” in online dating culture. On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to lie about your marital or relationship status, unless you’re prepared to continue lying once you’ve met a potential partner.

Let a friend review your profile. In putting together your profile, you want to maximize your good points without misrepresenting yourself. But you don’t want to put all your cards on the table or end up dwelling on your weaknesses. Most profiles benefit from some editing, and it’s a good idea to ask a close friend for some feedback. A friend can often see your most attractive and unique traits more easily than you can yourself.

Focus on your photo. For better or worse, that’s where your prospective dates will be starting—and some never get beyond the photo if it’s not appealing. Many men in particular insist that you post accurate, recent photos. This is a good idea in any case. If you don’t have good photos, it may be worth it to hire a professional photographer (though the photos should definitely not look Photoshopped). Men are more likely to contact you if you publish a shot that allows them to see your body, not just a headshot.

Dress the part. As with your personal description, when choosing or planning your photo, keep in mind the kind of person you want to attract. If you don’t want dates who are looking only for sex, don’t go overboard with your clothing or pose. Whether you’re looking to attract an academic or a banker, think about what kind of clothes and make-up will maximize that possibility. This is another area in which a friend’s advice can be useful.

Use it as an opportunity. Some people I’ve worked with use the experience of putting together a dating profile as an opportunity to narrow the gap between their “real” and “ideal” selves: losing weight, shopping for new clothes, getting a makeup consultation, etc. Often the very act of considering a dating site signals a willingness to be more active and attentive to your needs (which it is). It’s unclear which comes first—as a colleague once said to me, “hair change precedes psychic change.” It usually mean something is shifting, at the very least.

Ultimately, giving online dating a try is a symbol of being proactive about changing your life, and that is a good thing. It can be rough going at first—you may have to meet a lot of frogs before a prince shows up. Also, a thick skin is required to accept that many of the people you contact will not respond. Sometimes this is just situational—the person is taken, temporarily not checking the site, or is away. Many times I’ve seen cases in which a prospect gets back to you some time later on.

But who knows? By then you might be taken, too.

Next: Choosing to respond and why.