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.
The soon-to-be computer science and engineering major observes now that the quality of his applications improved as time went on. MIT was one of his first, and BU was his last.
For example, as part of his BU essay, he could be specific about the structure of BU buildings after viewing a YouTube video about the campus. Another early app – and rejection – was for Duke University. Ospina also got into North Carolina State University and High Point University.
Having moved to the U.S. from Colombia at age 7, he presented himself to colleges as a student with "an international perspective." One lesson learned from the application process is "to be yourself," Ospina says.
"I was trying too hard on my initial applications," and they came off as forced. He only has to pay $6,000 a year of the $61,000 cost, thanks to a combination of grants and work study.
GPA: 3.5, unweighted
SAT/ACT Scores: 660 math, 640 critical reading, 660 writing; 30 composite
Extracurriculars: marching and symphonic band, French Club, Physics Club, Service Club and tutor to adults seeking their GED
Surprise: There's no computer engineering degree at the University of Chicago.
Helping hand: Asked a friend to read over his scholarship applications and edit them.
Stressor: "I got my rejections from MIT and Duke in the same week."
Tip: "Make sure you know your math basics" before taking the SAT. He estimates that the Spark Notes website's SAT section helped him boost his test scores by 150 points.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.