Ah, serendipity. A generation ago, when Americans spoke of the best colleges, they had a pretty good idea: the oldest ones, a few of the biggest and not much else. Even now, among the old guard, that focus often remains on the eight Ivies, a few small institutions like Amherst and some celebrated state schools like the University of California, Berkeley. But today's students, when they start looking for their own best schools to attend, often wind up discovering many that are just as good, and often just about as difficult to get into, as the famous ones. And it's sort of cool to find out that a hot school doesn't need to be one that Grandma and Grandpa have even heard of.

With so much attention paid to college selection these days--as the number of high-school graduates reaches 3 million and beyond--families are looking for lesser-known schools that make the grade, along with those icons that live up to their reputations. All the colleges on the Hot List for 2006 have one attribute in common: they're creating buzz among students, school officials and longtime observers of the admissions process. Our choices, and corresponding categories, are inherently subjective: there are no equations for assessing the magic that makes a school sparkle. And the colleges suit a range of tastes--big and small, urban and rural, private and public. But each reflects a place that is preparing students well for a complex world. Herewith, a dozen of our picks for America's Hottest Colleges (to see the rest of the 25 schools, read the NEWSWEEK-Kaplan College Guide for 2006):


Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Last year Yale edged out Harvard as the most selective Ivy. But after Harvard announced that families earning less than $40,000 wouldn't have to pay the usual parental contribution to tuition, applications jumped to a record 22,796, and the acceptance rate this spring dropped to a new low for the Ivies, only 9.1 percent. The aid initiative increased the number of low-income students--296 qualified. Bottom line: competition was tougher than ever. Harvard undergrads often mock themselves. "It's nice to know you're going to school with people who will control the world," says rising senior Simon Vozick-Levinson. But they also know how to take advantage. The student paper, the Crimson, is putting out a new book, "How They Got Into Harvard," which has profiles of successful applicants, along with a second book full of winning application essays.


University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, Calif.

Science can be fun. UCSD undergraduates mark the end of the school year with the Watermelon Drop, a 40-year-old tradition that began when physics students tested velocity by dropping a melon from seven stories up. On a campus where a quarter of the $1.8 billion in revenue is federal research funds, and where there are eight Nobel laureates on the faculty, the science is also quite serious. UCSD chancellor Marye Anne Fox, an organic chemist, says welcoming undergrads into labs is a priority. The school, she says, is raising the quality of undergraduate education by offering new science majors like molecular synthesis and bioinformatics.

Its coastal location, too, is a plus. "Where else can you collect samples from the beach, the desert and the mountains all in one day--and still have time to run genetic tests on them that night?" says Meg Eckles, a biology doctoral student. Faculty and alumni have spun off nearly 200 companies, including about a third of the region's biotech firms.


Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn.

The 1,900-student campus in the middle of a vibrant metropolis has become a key recipient of the growing number of Harvard, Yale and Princeton applicants who are rejected for no other reason than that those schools don't have space for all the A-plus applicants. Macalester has one faculty member for every 11 students and an emphasis on international affairs, symbolized by one of its most famous alumni, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The college has six language residences: Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian and Spanish. It offers the intimacy of the archetypal small-town campus--in the middle of the Twin Cities. Applications have increased 60 percent since 1995.


College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va.

It still calls itself a college, even though it has significant graduate programs. William & Mary has only 5,700 undergraduates, which is small for a state school, and considers that a recruiting tool. All freshmen take a seminar with a senior professor and only 16 other students. Since 1999, applicants have jumped 34 percent.


Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.

Much of the charm of life among the Hoosiers springs from tradition, like the Little 500 bicycle races and weekend partying dramatized in the 1979 film "Breaking Away." But what stokes increasing interest in Indiana from out-of-staters, who make up a third of freshmen, is IU's embrace of the Information Age. Intel ranked it first among U.S. universities for wireless connectivity. It doesn't hurt that IU provides vast choices: 328 degree programs and 130 majors for 30,000 undergraduates.


The Citadel, Charleston, S.C.

The 1,900 cadets whose Citadel forebears fired some of the first shots of the Civil War aren't required to join the military on graduating, but more than a third do. The state college didn't look good 10 years ago, when Shannon Faulkner sued to become the first female cadet, and found less than a warm welcome. But women now make up 6 percent of the corps. The cadets call the school "El Cid," and say the bonds formed during the first summer of training in the Iberia-like Charleston heat last a lifetime.


Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Ga.

SCAD, as it's called, has had to recover from a troubled period in the early '90s, when a pipe-bomb explosion forced cancel-lation of graduation exercises, disgruntled students filed a $12 million lawsuit and faculty accused the family who founded the school of running it like a private piggy bank. Since Paula Wallace became president in 1999, the school's long war with local journalists and officials has ended, and its enrollment has grown from 4,500 to 6,700. There are more than 3,000 computer workstations with the same high-end software used in the art and design industry. The Hollywood special-effects-company recruiters have SCAD on their speed dials, and graduates are working for Digital Domain, Pixar and Disney Imagineering, as well as more traditional employers of artists like Procter & Gamble and the TV networks.


Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans

Xavier is the nation's only college that's both historically black and Roman Catholic. It's had a substantial impact on national medical care. Xavier "has produced a ton of doctors and pharmacists, and has great summer programs for high-school students, especially in sciences, math and computers," says Mary Ann Willis, the college counselor at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala. According to a 2004 study, the college of 3,500 students has produced more undergraduate degrees in biology and life sciences for African-Americans than any other school. Xavier continually ranks first in placing black students in medical schools and has educated nearly 25 percent of the approximately 6,000 African-American pharmacists in the United States.


Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill.

This is not a Bible college, Wheaton officials say. Bible colleges mostly train ministers. Wheaton, with 2,400 students, instead is a place committed to evangelical Protestant Christian faith, as part of the education of students going on to hundreds of different vocations. "We all have one thing in common: our love and our devotion to Jesus Christ," says junior Erin Tanana. The school is known for strong academics and its honor code. Alumni range from evangelist Billy Graham, '43, to Michael Gerson, '86, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.


Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt.

The hilly campus of wide meadows, beside a central Vermont village, has developed one of the strongest national reputations in teaching for-eign languages. Middlebury's summer language schools are famous, providing total-immersion programs in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. It has Schools Abroad programs run by full-time Middlebury faculty in 10 countries. About 60 percent of the 2,350 undergraduates spend at least a semester studying abroad. Kathryn Boateng, a 2005 graduate who had a double major in French and international politics and economics, says she was drawn to the range of opportunities; they include language tables at lunch, where students can practice their linguistic skills with professors.


University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

While other Ivies deny that applying Early Decision or Early Action yields any advantage, Penn's admissions office has long acknowledged it's more likely to select students who declare the 9,700-undergrad school to be their first choice. Lee Stetson, the dean of undergraduate admissions, says the more students he admits who are eager to be at Penn, the happier the campus. The emphasis on picking students who've picked Penn means freshmen fit in quickly, and "by and large everyone here has found a niche," says rising senior Rachel Fersh, chair of the Undergraduate Assembly.


Paul Smith's College, Paul Smiths, N.Y.

There's a simple explanation for the extraordinary look and feel of this career-oriented institution high in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It began life not as a college but as Paul Smith's Hotel, a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt's. The main campus is 14,200 acres for just 850 students, with bachelor's programs ranging from biology and business to forestry and ecotourism. The school's director of intramurals calls himself "the Dean of Fun" and organizes hikes in boots, skis and snowshoes. There's also a marathon canoe team and a coed woodsmen's team that throws axes and rolls logs. The school owns and runs the nearby Hotel Saranac.