3 Ways to Make Your College Application a Winner

Plan your college prep path as early as middle school to become a competitive applicant.

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The same advice applies if you land on the waitlist, which many colleges increasingly lean on. Staying in touch at this stage shows the admissions office that you're still a good catch. Send in any updated academic information and try to get a feel for how much and what type of contact is beneficial.

"You have to read the instructions of the school, because they all differ," stresses Pete Caruso, associate director of undergrad admissions at Boston College. Though "we clearly state that we're not meeting with wait-listed applicants," he says, inevitably some show up. "It makes for an awkward discussion."

Once all of the apps are in the mail, it's smart to reflect a bit and manage your expectations. Coming to terms with not getting your top choice can be difficult, but "it's not as if not getting into that school means there are no other options left," says Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

He sees that students are often driven to think that they should go to the school that's the hardest place to get in, whereas "we want them to find a place that is a good place for them."

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.