How I Got to College: Kirsten Gardner

See how this North Carolina high schooler chose to attend the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.

Kirsten Gardner will attend the University of North Carolina­­—Chapel Hill to pursue a degree in marine biology.

Kirsten Gardner will attend the University of North Carolina­­—Chapel Hill to pursue a degree in marine biology.

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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. 

An IB student, Kirsten Gardner completed nine college applications and then submitted just four, including one to the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, where she will study marine biology on a full ride as a Morehead Cain Scholar. 

She also got into the College of Charleston in South Carolina and Eckerd College in Florida, and was turned down by Brown University in Rhode Island. 

First, she will take a gap year to travel to Peru, Chile, Spain and Morocco on a voluntary work exchange program focusing on sustainability projects, organic farming, permaculture and access to water. 

"At the beginning, I had lofty expectations," says Gardner, who never thought she would go to UNC "because I wanted to get away." But over the course of the application process, she realized that living near home would be okay. 

In fact, getting the Morehead scholarship "made my decision really easy," she says. 

GPA: 3.8 

SAT/ACT Scores: 630 math, 720 critical reading, 730 writing; 28 composite 

Extracurriculars: Model U. N. Club vice president, Service Club, captain of the cross-country and track and field teams, intern at the Natural Science Museum, music leader for youth worship services at church, tutor 

Essay: Cubism. She argued that "we should take the cubist's advice in human conflicts and global issues by learning to understand and incorporate the views and perspectives of all people." 

Craziest essay question: UNC's question: If you put a message in a bottle, what would it say? 

Stressor: Scholarship applications. They can be "very time consuming," some requiring 2,000-word essays. 

Boost: Interning at a science museum helped to back up her interest in marine biology. 

Early start: She began entering "the tedious" data into her applications the summer before senior year, leaving fall and early winter for the more challenging parts of the applications and scholarship research. 

Tip: "Don't apply to a school just because it has a big name. You don't need to prove yourself." 

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