Pull apart the DNA of a student's dream school and you'll find so many different strands. Perhaps it's the location, either in the rolling country- side far from anything resembling a sidewalk, or in the midst of a hip urban neighborhood. It could be a college's unique educational mission or the array of quirky personalities. Maybe it's the outstanding labs or libraries or theaters, even the fitness center. All the colleges on the Hot List for 2005 have one thing in common: they provide an outstanding education. But what makes them hot is their differences.

Although all have demonstrated continuing excellence, various qualities made many of them stand out this year. The Iraq war, as well as its aftermath, highlighted the importance of well-educated military leadership and made some students think of applying to Annapolis or West Point. The debate over Early Decision (ED) admissions policies prompted a number of applicants to try schools like Yale or Stanford that have led the effort to reduce ED stress.

The controversy over affirmative action motivated other students to seek colleges like Wesleyan that celebrate diversity. Another trend has been increased attention to quality-of-life issues: good dorms, good food, a range of student organizations. There's also a growing focus on life after college: Is the career center helpful? How many students get jobs or get into graduate schools? With annual costs at private universities topping $40,000, these are serious questions.

To compile this admittedly subjective list, we interviewed students, admissions officers and longtime observers of the admissions process. The applicant pool for all these schools has grown much stronger in recent years--not only in sheer numbers of applicants but also in test scores, grades and extracurricular accomplishments. Some schools on our list have international reputations; others aren't widely known. But they are all someone's dream school. Maybe yours? Herewith, 10 of our picks (to see the rest of the 25 hot schools, read the Kaplan-newsweek College Guide for 2005):

Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Yale president Richard Levin has been a leader in efforts to change ED admissions policies, and that's probably one reason the university is at the top of so many ambitious students' lists. A record 19,682 students applied this year, but only 1,955 were admitted. Undergraduate-admissions Dean Richard Shaw says the number of campus visits has increased dramatically--a good indicator of a spike in future applications. Yalies say a big attraction of the undergraduate experience is the residential-college system. Students live in one of 12 colleges, each with its own character, under the guidance of a master and a dean.

Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
With six undergraduate schools, Northwestern attracts budding actors, journalists, engineers and teachers--along with plenty of liberal-arts students still unsure of what to major in. Each school has a national reputation. Some standouts: the Medill School of Journalism, the School of Communication (which includes the drama and theater program) and the engineering school, which is a center of research in nanotechnology. When they're not studying, Northwestern students can take in Wildcats football or head into nearby Chicago.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
President Charles Vest is leaving his mark with an ambitious $1 billion construction program that includes Steven Holl's Simmons Hall, a controversial aluminum-clad dorm that opened in 2002, and Fumihiko Maki's expansion of the Media Lab. The biggest buzz surrounds the new Stata Center, a computer-science building by Frank Gehry. The raucous, lighthearted exterior belies purposeful planning inside: the center not only contains labs for the "intelligence sciences" but also connects corridors and public spaces in a way that encourages spontaneous collaboration. An "intellectual village," MIT calls it.

Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.
"We want to include everyone who would benefit and contribute to the kinds of discussions we have in classes," says Dean of Admissions Nancy Meislahn. More than a third are "students of color," and 7 percent are international students. An additional 15 percent are the first in their families to attend a four-year college. The result, say Wesleyan officials, is a great range of perspectives.

Tufts University, Medford, Mass.
Long before globalization became a cliche, Tufts administrators were figuring out how to teach students to be citizens of the world. "Tufts likes students who want to study abroad," says Sheila Bayne, director of overseas programs. This translates into a strong language requirement, and a chance to learn a new culture in one of Tufts's own centers in such countries as Germany, Chile, China or Ghana. About 40 percent of Tufts juniors--as well as some seniors and sophomores--are away during the academic year.

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Michigan took the lead in the recent affirmative-action case that went to the Supreme Court, and has been an innovator in multidisciplinary approaches to everything from music to medicine. "A smaller university might excel in one subject but not everything," says spokesman Julie Peterson. That includes a lively social life. About 15 percent of undergrads go Greek, which students say helps them find a friendlier community within the vast student population (23,000 undergrads). Fraternities and sororities are especially popular with the many out-of-state students, says Mary Beth Seiler, the Greek-life director.

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Hands-on experience is a key part of life at Carnegie Mellon, says Michael Steidel, director of admissions. The 1,360 students in the freshman class apply to one of the school's 12 programs; computer science, engineering and drama are most popular. The school takes pride in being on the cutting edge in every field and encourages students to think about applying what they learn to the real world. "We start working with students as freshmen to get them thinking about what's possible in terms of what your education can do," Steidel says. That approach seems to be paying off both in the number of applications (they've more than doubled in the last decade) and in the value of a Carnegie Mellon degree: about 70 percent of students have a job offer when they graduate (an additional 30 percent go right to graduate school).

U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.
At Annapolis, getting in is the easy part--even though that means winning one of about 1,200 coveted tuition-free spots from among more than 14,000 applicants. The four-year curriculum is tough and technically oriented, with core requirements in engineering, natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. Traditions play a huge part in campus life. "When you first show up for classes in the fall, students begin counting down the number of days until the Army-Navy game," says Cmdr. Tim Disher, admissions officer. Graduates become commissioned officers in the Navy or the Marine Corps.

Berea College, Berea, Ky.
Berea's mission is unique among American colleges. The 1,500 students come from families with average household incomes of only $30,000, and 80 percent have grown up in southern Appalachia, a region that includes some of the most poverty-stricken rural communities in the country. All students get full-tuition scholarships, although they do have to pay for as much of their room, board and books as they can afford (scholarships are available for those as well). Students are required to work--many of them at campus jobs that are critical to keeping Berea's costs down. Many students are also active in community service and go on to be doctors, nurses or social workers in the region.

University of California,
Santa Barbara
If there's a more beautiful campus than this one at the edge of the Pacific, we haven't seen it. For many students, that would seal the deal, but UCSB also boasts Nobel Prize winners on its faculty, and top research centers in science and technology. Aside from the top academics, a big draw for many is the variety of recreation. The campus has its own beaches where students can surf, and the Big Bear ski resort is just a few hours' drive away.