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.
Tuang Vaan's family chose to leave a repressive Burma and settled in the Raleigh, N.C., area in 2009, just in time for their only son to start high school.
Vaan found a home in the school's auto service tech program, and made the honor roll every semester even as he was working as a dishwasher and unloading trucks to help support his family.
But the young immigrant is used to work, having started at age 10 sanding walls and painting buildings in Burma.
"I never dreamed I'd finish school in the U.S., or go to college," says Vaan, who plans to study automotive engineering at nearby Wake Technical Community College. He also got into the Universal Technical Institute NASCAR Tech at Charlotte, but thought it was too expensive for a non-degree credential program.
"My parents want me to get a degree," says Vaan, who will pursue an associate degree for $1,200 per semester. He plans to work his way through college.
SAT/ACT Scores: He didn't need to take any tests for admission to community college.
Extracurriculars: Plays guitar and piano, volunteers repairing houses for needy families and also at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a human rights agency.
Essay topic: His journey from Burma to Malaysia to the U.S.
Goal: "To have my own business is my big dream."
Big surprise: The high cost of college. It's the reason he chose to go for an associate degree and is taking the earn-while-you-learn approach to financing it.
Tip: Don't hesitate to "ask a lot of questions."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.