This spring, U.S. News visited Needham B. Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., to ask eight students from the class of 2013 about their paths to college and to invite them to pass along any helpful lessons learned.
Not far from North Carolina's state capitol, the school's district is home to a cross-section of rich and poor neighborhoods; more than one-third of the students live in poverty. Nearly half of the school's 1,250 students are white, about one-third are African-American, and Hispanics and Asians account for the rest.
The high school offers an International Baccalaureate diploma program, and 150 students take part; 89 percent of the class of 2012 went on to college.
An IB student, Benedicte Mangala is going to the University of North Carolina--Charlotte to study biology or pre-dentistry.
She also got into Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., University of North Carolina--Greensboro and East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. She heard "no" from University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Appalachian State University.
In filling out her applications, Mangala focused on what she sees as a real strength, her varied interests and activities. They include serving as student body vice president and varsity cheerleader, marching band, being the school's Queen of Hearts this year, French Club, International Club and chorus.
The most stressful part of the process: waiting to hear back on her citizenship application while applying to college.
Mangala's family moved from the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was in fourth grade. She became a citizen in December, which allowed her access to financial aid.
SAT/ACT Scores: 540 math, 490 critical reading, 550 writing; 21 composite
Essay topic: "I defined myself as a book whose chapters foreshadow the great things that await me" and "assemble my existence in the two worlds in which I now belong - the USA and Congo."
Nail-biter: She expected to hear from her top pick, UNC--Charlotte, on April 1, but never did; the school said it hadn't received her fee waiver. She finally got the good word in mid-May.
Realization: "I did my apps either right before deadline or on the deadline day," which made the process more stressful than it needed to be.
Organizational tool: A regularly updated to-do list
Helpful: The College Board and U.S. News websites helped her get a better sense of colleges' personalities and which ones offered programs of interest.
Tip: "Apply early and apply to a back-up school, just in case."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.