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.
Fiona Dunn got into all three schools she applied to, including "my dream school," the Savannah College of Art and Design, which awarded her a scholarship to cover tuition.
North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina--Charlotte also gave Dunn a thumbs-up. The IB student kept her list short, because most art programs are fine arts-focused and her plan is to study sequential art - comics - and medical illustration.
"SCAD has a strong interest in getting students skilled in the technology," says Dunn. "I'm very interested in combined written and visual storytelling."
Besides her strong academic performance, Dunn highlighted her summer experience at the N.C. Governor's School - an intensive and competitive five-week residential program for gifted students - and submitted her art work; she also wrote about the way in which she develops ideas.
"A strength of mine is being able to talk about my art and the creative process," she says.
SAT/ACT Scores: 680 math, 760 critical reading, 620 writing; 35 composite
Extracurriculars: Historic reenactment group, school orchestra (first chair viola), Service Club president, Winged Words Student Literary Magazine vice president, National Merit Program finalist
Essay topic: SCAD didn't require one, but for other colleges she wrote about her experience in the N.C. Governor's School summer program.
Helpful: She visited SCAD during sophomore year and stayed in touch with the admissions director.
Highlight: "I enjoyed putting my portfolio together; it was a real feeling of pride."
Do-over: "I would have visited more colleges."
Tip: "Get on top of it as soon as you can." Despite being "a procrastinator," she says, she was so driven to get into SCAD that "I submitted my application in August."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.