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 countryside far from anything that resembles 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 on campus. Maybe it's the outstanding labs or libraries or theaters, even the fitness center. All 25 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 and special traits.

Although all these schools have demonstrated continuing excellence, various qualities made many of them stand out in 2004. 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 on students. The controversy over affirmative action motivated other students to seek out schools like Wesleyan that celebrate diversity. Another trend has been increased attention to quality-of-life issues: good dorms, good food, an active social life, a range of student organizations. There's also a growing focus on what happens at the end of four years. Is the career center helpful? How many students get jobs or are accepted into the graduate schools of their choice? With tuition and fees at private universities topping $40,000 a year, these are serious questions.

To compile this admittedly subjective list, we interviewed students, admissions officers and longtime observers of the ad-missions process. The applicant pool for all these schools has grown much stronger in recent years--not only in sheer numbers of students applying but also in test scores, grades and extracurricular accomplishments. Some schools on our list have international repu-tations. Others aren't widely known out-side their region. But they are all someone's dream school. Maybe yours? Herewith, America's Hottest Colleges for 2005.

Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
Yale president Richard Levin has been a leader in efforts to change ED admissions policies, and that is probably one reason the university was at the top of so many ambitious students' lists this year. A record 19,682 students applied in 2003, but only 1,955 were admitted. The 2004-05 season could be a repeat. Undergraduate Admissions Dean Richard Shaw says the number of campus visits has increased dramatically--a good indicator of a future spike in applications. Yalies say a big attraction of their 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.

Juilliard School, New York, N.Y.
Juilliard turns 100 in the 2005-06 academic year, and the current crop of students can look back on an impressive history with such alumni as actor Kevin Kline, violinist Itzhak Perlman and choreographer Lar Lubovitch. To celebrate, the school will introduce new choreography, productions and performances. The student orchestra, which already performs abroad, will embark on its first domestic tour. In 2003-04, Juilliard received 2,016 applications; only 152 musicians, dancers and actors were offered the chance to showcase their talent in the Juilliard Theater right next to Lincoln Center. That's the best inspiration for any aspiring star.

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 their major. Each school has a national reputation and draws students from all over the country. Some standouts: the Medill School of Journalism, the School of Communication (which includes the drama and thea-ter 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 Chicago, which is at the doorstep of the Evanston campus.

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard's library system ranks with the best of any kind in the country, even the Library of Congress. "It contains the largest collection of every kind of book and bit of information anyone would ever want," says library director Sidney Verba. The collection includes more than 15 million volumes, 5.5 million microforms, 6.5 million manuscripts and 5 million other research materials such as photographs, maps and recordings. Even undergraduates take advantage of these resources for writing term papers and senior theses. Harvard's digital collection is particularly strong, and a big draw for students who want access to just about every online journal around.

Hollins University, Roanoke, Va.
Located in the rolling hills of Virginia's horse country, Hollins offers outstanding training for equestriennes. With fewer than 800 women undergraduates, the school is a regular winner of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship, and the Hollins team has captured seven top 10 finishes in the Intercollegiate Horse Show As-sociation. Many Hollins students work with horses after gradua-tion as trainers, riders or veterinarians. But if they decide to get out of the saddle, the school also offers a strong liberal-arts program and a highly regarded creative-writing curriculum with dozens of famous grads (including Margaret Wise Brown, Annie Dillard and Lee Smith).

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 dormitory that opened in 2002, and Fumihiko Maki's expansion of the Media Lab. The biggest buzz surrounds the Stata Center, a computer-science building by Frank Gehry that opened in spring 2004. The raucous, lighthearted exterior belies purpose-ful 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. MIT calls it an "intellectual village."

University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
Long before the invention of the treadmill, Thomas Jefferson, the founder of UVA, wrote: "A strong body makes the mind strong." UVA follows that adage by offering both varsity competitors and weekend warriors some of the best fitness facilities in the country. Associate athletics director Mark Fletcher says 94 percent of all students use one of the four indoor recreation centers, which together make up 300,000 square feet of pools, running tracks, weight rooms and classrooms for yoga and kickboxing. The school also maintains a 23-acre park for outdoor field sports and jogging.

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 family to attend a four-year college. The result, Wesleyan officials say, is a great range of perspectives in the classroom.

Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.
Dartmouth's first computer was so expensive that only faculty and administrators were allowed to use it. But Profs. John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz understood that computers were tools for everyone. Forty years ago they created the computer language BASIC, which helped hasten the personal-computer revolution. The school has been in the forefront of technological change ever since, with one of the first e-mail programs and an early campus computer network. Dartmouth was also the first Ivy to install Wi-Fi on campus. The school offers free software to students so they can turn their laptops into telephones using the school's Wi-Fi--a good thing, because regular cell-phone service on the rural campus can be spotty.

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. For graduates who find their calling in working overseas, there's Tufts's famed Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy just down the street.

Haverford College, Haverford, Pa.
Quakers founded Haverford in 1833, and even though the school is now secular, this academically rigorous liberal-arts college retains many traces of its heritage. The honor code is central to the college's values and covers almost every aspect of academic and social life. Take-home and unproctored exams are routine, and students live in dorms without resident advisers because they are expected to be able to handle any issues that arise among themselves. On the rare occasions when a student breaches the code, the student-run Honor Council determines the consequences. "Haverford expects people to learn from one another, debate and argue with one another--but to do so respectfully," says Rob Killion, director of admissions.

George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
With a campus next door to the World Bank and down the street from the White House, GW is a poli-sci major's dream. Professors often consult for the government, which gives their classroom perspective a practical edge. The school also encourages internships at government agencies, think tanks and advocacy organizations. And for a study break, students can check out CNN's political-affairs show "Crossfire," which is telecast live from the campus. Another plus: the fixed-tuition plan, which keeps rates flat until graduation. You don't need to be a policy wonk to appreciate that.

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. "We give our students everything." 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. "If you're far away from home and looking to connect, it provides an opportunity," she says.

Rice University, Houston, Texas
Most schools call for students to declare a major by sophomore year, but Rice doesn't require that commitment until junior year--which means students have lots of time to explore different passions. That may be one reason that nearly two thirds at Rice end up double-majoring. "We have an extremely ambitious student body," says Ann Wright, vice president for enrollment. The most common combination is science and humanities. The school is best known nationally for its engineering and science curriculum, but the social sciences are also becoming strong. Rice stands out another way: although it's a major research institution, it feels relatively intimate because it has only 2,800 undergraduates.

Pomona College, Claremont, Calif.
Students at Pomona (one of five colleges in the Claremont University Consortium) like to say they have the best of two worlds: the academically challenging environment of a small New England liberal-arts college with year-round California sunshine. That combination has been drawing more students from around the country, and applications are up 30 percent in the last few years. Students also can tap the academic and social resources of the other Claremont colleges, including Pitzer, Harvey Mudd and Scripps. But none of the colleges will be tapping a keg during "dry week," a tradition at the start of the year during which no alcohol is allowed on campus. "Alcohol isn't the center of the social universe at Pomona," says Bruce Poch, dean of admissions. All those palm trees are enough of a high.

University of Texas at Austin
Austin is the "live-music capital of the world" and home to the University of Texas--a campus so laid-back it should be deemed the capital of flip-flops as well. But don't get the wrong idea: this isn't a place for slackers. With 50,000 students (more than any other school in the country), UT boasts some of the nation's best business, law and engineering schools. If football isn't your thing (that'll change), one of the 900 student organizations should spark your interest. Best of all, even out-of-state tuition (about $12,000) is cheaper than at a private university, making it possible to ditch the ramen and try the barbecue.

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).

Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.
Although it's probably best known for football, Penn State is also staking a strong claim as a training ground for future entrepreneurs. Six of the campus's 10 undergraduate colleges offer entrepreneurship courses. The Smeal College of Business and the College of Engineering are the most natural partners, with joint programs to show engineers how to run businesses and to teach business students the latest technology. Hotel-management students operate two on-campus hotels and conference centers where they're involved in everything from food service to staffing the front desk. The College of Communications focuses on entrepreneurship in the Information Age. But the creme de la creme (literally) is the Creamery, officially a "working laboratory" for food-science students in the College of Agricultural Sciences. While those students learn the basics of product development and marketing, other Penn Staters savor some of the best ice cream around, like Peachy Paterno (named after the legendary football coach).

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, N.C.
One of the top public universities in the country, UNC-Chapel Hill offers students a choice of more than 50 majors. But what really draws future doctors, nurses and other health professionals is the opportunity to study at a campus with all health disciplines in one place. The School of Nursing and the School of Public Health both have undergraduate programs. At the School of Medicine, undergrads can earn degrees in radiologic science or clinical laboratory practice. With all these resources, it's not surprising that biology, psychology and nursing are among the top majors. Linda Cronenwett, dean of the School of Nursing, says "a history of collaboration grew up that enhanced the work of all our disciplines."

Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
Two schools make up Oberlin--the College of Arts and Sciences and the Conservatory of Music--and an idiosyncratic approach to life and learning is a virtue throughout the campus. Consider the innovative subject matter of some first-year seminars: Death and the Art of Dying, American Mixed Blood, and Destination: L.A. The student-run Experimental College lets undergraduates teach courses of their own creation, like Making Your Own Mobile or Mythology and Epic Storytelling in "Lord of the Rings." This eccentricity gets results: Oberlin graduates have more Ph.D.s than alumni of any other liberal-arts college. They also include comic-strip artist David Rees, New York Magazine editor Adam Moss and opera singer Indira Mahajan.

Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Technically, Ithaca is a city, but no one would mistake it for Manhattan. Cornell's rural, upstate New York campus is bounded by deep gorges (prompting the bumper sticker ithaca is gorges). Even during the long winters, many students say the scenery is spectacular--a good antidote to a demanding course schedule that students call the toughest of the Ivies. The school's biggest draw is its academic diversity, with top-ranked undergraduate schools of engineering, arts and sciences, architecture, hotel administration, industrial and labor relations, agriculture and human ecology. Another plus is the food, considered to be among the best campus cuisines in the country.

New York University, New York, N.Y.
The erstwhile TV show "Felicity" helped make NYU a TV star, but in 2004-05 the campus will be home to some real-life celebrities: the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. Not that NYU needs extra star power. Even after September 11, the school continued to draw applications from more than 17,000 talented students. One of the top attractions is the Tisch School of the Arts, which nurtures future actors, dancers and screenwriters. The business school is also highly rated, and students can take advantage of internships on Wall Street, just a subway ride away. Although NYU doesn't have a campus in the traditional sense (the buildings are scattered throughout Greenwich Village), few students complain. Instead of a single grassy quad, they've got a whole city to explore.

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 spans nine states with some of the most remote and 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 jobs on campus 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, top research centers in science and technology and an extensive study-abroad program. The number of applicants has doubled in the past decade, with 36,651 applying for admission to the class of 2008 (19,325 were accepted). 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.