12/13/2011 02:03 pm ET

College Admissions Tips: How 8 Applicants Got Into Their Dream Schools

The journey to college acceptance is one best told by the experts: high school seniors who've just completed the process. We asked students from the Class of 2011 at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., to relate their experiences, tips, and observations.

Ava Wallace

"I want to work for ESPN," says Ava Wallace, who headed to Northwestern University to study journalism. When it comes to experience in sports and journalism, she's got some background: co-editor-in-chief of MB's school newspaper (online), a participant in varsity lacrosse and tennis, and repeat winner of a scholar-athlete award.

After considering seven schools, she applied to three with strong communications programs: early decision at Northwestern, plus the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina. Watching her brother, who is a year older, go through the application process made her own journey easier.

GPA: 3.77 unweighted

SAT scores: 660 math, 740 critical reading, 690 writing

Extracurriculars: Besides the online school paper, captain of the tennis and lacrosse teams, National Honor Society

Essay topic: Building homes in New Orleans for three summers

On visits: They can make all the difference. "I loved it," she says about visiting Northwestern; conversely, she scratched Duke University off her list after a visit there.

Tip: She figured that as a writer, she'd rip through the application essays. But "it's not like an essay you can put off for class."

[Get 10 tips for writing the college admissions essay.]

Eye-opener: Friends got into Columbia University, Yale University, and New York University, but ended up at Maryland because of costs.

Helpful tech: provides a lot of anecdotes about schools.

Bottom line: "You have to have self-esteem," she says now. "If you don't have confidence, it will show in your essays and college interviews."

Eli Okun

Eli Okun's search strategy entailed finding a medium-size school that offered lots of resources and course options but still had an intimate feel. He applied to eight schools: Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, Columbia University, the University of Maryland, the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Pomona College in California, and Tufts University in Massachusetts.

His strategy was to present himself as a leader: president of two school clubs and op-ed editor of the school newspaper. A top-notch GPA and perfect SAT scores didn't hurt. He got into six schools, with a full ride to Maryland, and picked one of the two Ivys that picked him, Brown. (The other: Columbia.)

GPA: 4.0 unweighted

SAT scores: 800 math, 800 critical reading, 800 writing

Extracurriculars: Theater, Model United Nations and Jewish Culture clubs, internship with the Washington Post editorial board, National Honor Society

Essay topic: Overcoming a disabling stroke at age seven

Biggest stressors: Being wait-listed, not knowing when he would hear back, and writing his essays

[Read what to expect if you get put on the wait list.]

Biggest help: Visiting six schools during spring break of junior year to get a sense of their offerings and feel

Distinguishing factors: He wants to write for the student paper and Brown has a daily; compared to Columbia, Brown has a more community-centered campus.

Second thoughts: "I fell out of love with Pomona and Columbia after I applied."

Tip: Do what you really love while in high school.

Click here to meet the other six Blair grads and hear how they got into college.