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.
Syeda Khadri, an IB student, will study biology at University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, a step toward her dream of becoming a pediatrician.
She likes the diversity at UNC and the fact that "it felt like family there." Her gut feeling was that some admissions offices seemed to be guided more heavily by applicants' stats, while UNC seemed more interested in her "resume and leadership action."
In addition to touting her leadership roles - as vice president of the Muslim Student Association and lead organizer of the BHS International Festival - she highlighted her range of activities, including that she's an artist and member of the Young Democrats.
SAT Scores: 600 math, 570 critical reading, 570 writing
Extracurriculars: Besides the Muslim Student Association and Young Democrats, member of Service Club, treasurer of the National Honor Society, finalist in a mural design contest. Also, a participant in Broughton Coalition for the Homeless and a science and technology career prep program at NC State University
Essay topic: How she's like her favorite food, ramen noodles: easy to read, straightforward and simple
Regrets: Started late. Left too little time for her essay and applied to ECU's honors program the day after the deadline. Also, "I wish I'd studied more for my SAT and ACT."
Discovery: She dreaded the essay, but got to know herself better in writing it.
Do-over: Would have taken the most rigorous courses, and started sophomore year.
Tip: Sign up for the College Board's "SAT Question of the Day."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.