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.
Alexander "Ryan" Hudson, the class valedictorian, is studying at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., on a full ride, after deciding the offer from Harvard University to cover half his costs didn't cut it.
As a Guy T. Carswell scholar at Wake Forest, Hudson believes he'll get "a large amount of personalized support that I would not as just another Harvard undergrad." He'll study physics and get funding to do undergraduate research.
"I also really liked Wake Forest when I visited it for the scholarship weekend." His planned visit to Harvard fell victim to Boston's lockdown after the marathon bombing.
The National Merit Scholar and center for the school's football team applied to more than a dozen schools and got into most, including the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, Cornell University, New York University and University of Pennsylvania.
SAT/ACT Scores: 800 math, 800 critical reading, 730 writing; 36 composite
Extracurriculars: Varsity football and track, math club, Science Olympiad, emergency medical technician, tutor, Habitat for Humanity volunteer
Essay topic: Losing weight. "I was told I had very high blood pressure. That was a wake-up call."
Biggest mistake: "I applied to so many schools, it was hard to keep track of everything." As a result of being disorganized, he was unable to do an MIT interview.
Turnoff: The "gothic stone" at Duke. "It got on my nerves."
What colleges want: "They want to see you passionate about something."
Bright idea: Used an Excel spreadsheet to track his applications, SATs, ACTs, CSS/Financial Aid Profile, scholarships, admissions officers and contact info.
Tip: When it comes to financial aid, "don't take the first number they give you." He appealed eight schools' awards and got all of them to give him more money, from $2,000 to a whopping $30,000.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.