Every year, high-school seniors undergo two rituals of choice. one is picking out a college. The second is ranking their classmates for the yearbook: Most Outgoing, Most Athletic, Best All-Around. Choosing an undergraduate institution may be much more important, but voting on senior superlatives is way more fun. In that spirit, we decided to combine the processes this year in putting together our annual list of select choices. Meet the "Hot Schools" Class of 2004.

After interviewing deans, admissions officers, guidance counselors and students--and keeping an eye on the news--we've put together a list of schools that are getting noticed these days. Some of our picks are private, some are public. Some have splashy construction projects or innovative curricula or comprehensive financial-aid packages (always a plus in bad economic times). Some focus on the arts, while others are known for tech or business acumen. And some combine choice attributes. Lately we've been told that students are less concerned with location and more interested in applying to "families" of schools that offer comparable experiences. If you're one of these students, you can use our list to find a family of your own by checking out a new feature: at the bottom of each entry, you can see where else students applied. In many cases, these "runners-up" have stronger brand names than our up-and-coming "winners." That's OK. The old reliables have earned their status, but the new and the fresh deserve special notice. We focused on schools that might surprise you--those frequently overlooked by top students in favor of the Ivies or state behemoths. These institutions may not stay that way for long. BEST ALL-AROUND
Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Yes, it's in a tiny corn-farming hamlet. But don't let the small-town fa??ade fool you--Grinnell is as cosmopolitan as any school, with 1,500 students from all 50 states and 55 countries. Average SAT scores hover around 1350, and famous alumni include Intel cofounder Robert Noyce and jazz great Herbie Hancock. Grinnell has brawn, too--its basketball team won the Midwest Conference championship in 2001 and 2003. The campus welcomes minorities, who comprise more than 18 percent of the class of 2007. And Grinnell encourages a variety of academic interests and undergraduate research. Senior Holly Maness, a 2003 Goldwater scholar, has been published in prestigious journals already for her astrophysics research on nebulae.

But it's not all lab life; Grinnell hosts plays, concerts and on-campus movies (three per weekend). All students should be dazzled by four new residence halls costing $26 million total. The school is also planning a new campus center and fitness center. If all this sounds too good to come cheap--well, it is. Total tab for 2003-04 will run $31,060. But it still winds up being affordable for most. Grinnell is among the fewer than 40 colleges--all of them top schools, including the Ivies--that still offer need-blind admissions, and almost 90 percent of students receive some form of financial aid. "You never see a BMW or an SUV," says Jim Sumner, dean of admission and financial aid. All those plays, concerts and movies? They're free. (Did we mention that Warren Buffett, a lifetime trustee, used to help manage the hefty endowment?) No wonder applications are up 10 percent.

Grinnell students also apply to Macalester and Oberlin. MOST OLD-SCHOOL
St. John's College, Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M.

What does Annapolis have in common with Santa Fe? Not much except for St. John's, which has a campus at each location. Both share a full curriculum of classes, all required. Students choose a primary campus, but about a third of the 900 spend at least a year at the other. There are no majors; instead, everyone earns a degree in liberal arts. The curriculum, with its focus on classical education, is unique and relentless. Founded in 1696, St. John's has the motto "Where great books are the teachers." Students read Plato, Aristotle and Homer, as well as Emerson and O'Connor; all students take four years of math, three years of science and three years of language. And though students have to formally request permission to see their own grades (most don't, unless they're bound for grad school), they are subjected to an old Oxford tradition called the "Don Rag," in which teachers orally give students a review at the end of each semester. Says sophomore Maia Nahele Huff-Owen, "It's something that might actually help me be a better student." Out of the classroom, undergraduates have two beautiful cities to explore--but just as often at the Annapolis campus, they can be found playing croquet in Birkenstocks. It sounds splendid--maybe that's why applications are up 17 percent.

Many St. John's students also apply to Swarthmore, Bard, Wellesley and Smith. MOST TECH-SAVVY
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Terre Haute, Ind.

"We are not all things to all people," says Charles Howard, dean of admissions. Isn't that the truth--until 1995, Rose-Hulman didn't even admit women. Today it's a rising star among tech-heavy peers like MIT and Caltech. When he tells people he goes to Rose-Hulman, Brian Edmonson, a junior, says they respond, "You must be really smart!" Indeed, Rose's 1,650 students are "a campus of experimenters," says physicist Art Western, dean of the faculty. They work on group engineering projects, redesigning everything from Hot Wheels-style toy racetracks (to make them faster) to the Halo brace that keeps injured patients' spines in line. And the extracurricular activities? They look a lot like the curricular ones; one of the most popular is racing student-designed flying robots. The emphasis on Things That Go shows in alumni r??sum??s. Graduates include NASA's first director of spaceflight operations and the president of Indy 500-winning Penske Racing. General Motors, by the way, recently narrowed its recruiting list to just 20 colleges. Rose is one of them. Carnegie Mellon University,
Pittsburgh, Pa.

The dot-economy is history, but don't cry for techie-mecca Carnegie Mellon. It's already moved on. The school is now giving its students a broader education, emphasizing both information technology and the arts. Its robotics program--home to such academic celebrities as Hans Moravec, who pioneered robotic walking--is also maintaining its strength (in 2003 it hosted the first RoboCup American Open). The school is progressing in other directions; for years the campus joke has been that there are more undergraduates named Dave than there are female students. As of 1995, it was true. These days, with aggressive administrative efforts, the "Dave to Girl" ratio is much lower--women make up 39 percent of the 5,347 students.

Those who like Rose and Carnegie Mellon also consider MIT, Caltech or Case Western Reserve. MOST QUIRKY
Reed College, Portland, Ore.

Reed doesn't submit data for the rankings done by U.S. News & World Report, but you'd never know it from its popularity. For the class entering in the fall of 2003, it drew a record high of 2,282 applicants--a quarter more than the previous year--for just 315 slots. Perhaps they were drawn by Reed's vast academic possibilities. Students explore everything from French poetry to nuclear physics (there's a reactor on campus--the only one in the country set aside for undergraduates). Alumni include "White Oleander" author Janet Fitch; Apple Computer's Steve Jobs also attended but stayed only for a semester.

Reed fans also apply to Stanford, Brown, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley. MOST CAREER-FOCUSED
Bentley College, Waltham, Mass.

A few years ago folks outside Massachusetts might never have heard of Bentley. Today the school of 3,800 undergraduates is enjoying a spike in applications. Bentley markets itself as "America's first business university" and says it focuses on future-CEO types; in 2003, despite the economy, it had a record high of 763 firms recruiting on campus. It also draws students interested in the arts--well, the business of the arts. Kate Davy, dean of arts and sciences, is a former theater critic. Her new approach to combining business and the arts won her a rave profile in The Boston Globe. "When I went there it was basically an accounting school," says Brian Zino, a 1974 graduate and president of a New York investment-management firm. "But they've taken a curriculum and expanded it, and the standards have risen every year."

Business-minded students also focus on Babson and Bryant colleges. MOST FUN-LOVING
Carleton College, Northfield, Minn.

Here's an odd statistic promoted by a school: Carleton has about "1.9 Frisbees per student," says Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions. Carleton is also the kind of place where the president tells a ghost story on Halloween and students all join together in a "primal scream" at 10 p.m. on the eve of finals. Despite its location about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities, in a town of 17,000, Carleton offers students plenty of fun through 17 "interest houses," including a yoga house and a culinary house for budding chefs. The 1,900 students share a wacky sensibility; 2003 marks the fourth season for the Honking Knights pep band, known for its dozen versions of "I'm a Little Teapot." More than two thirds of its students study abroad, and those who stay at home get variety, too: Carleton offers three 10-week terms, which means more classes, and teaching is a priority (average class size is just 17). But it all comes at a price: the total bill for 2003-04 will be $34,395, making it the costliest of our choices this year.

Carleton students often apply to Williams. MOST FOR YOUR MONEY
The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.

The administration wasn't pleased when Evergreen was named No. 1 on a certain magazine's 2002 "top schools" list. (It was High Times, the pot user's periodical. The school immediately protested.) But it has a lot of other things to be happy about. With states increasingly focusing resources on small liberal-arts colleges in their systems, Evergreen has become a contender for those who might head off to pricey private schools. It has a private school's size (4,080), curriculum and educational chops. But tuition is only $3,441 for in-staters. (That may explain why only 891 of those students were nonresidents--they pay almost four times as much.)

The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Florida's New College are also public schools with a private atmosphere. MOST DIVERSE
Occidental College, Los Angeles, Calif.

This small school has been building momentum since the mid-'90s; applications have gone up, thanks largely to students looking for a minority-friendly environment, especially in a large city. Nearly 40 percent of its 1,830 students are minorities. But the campus is a friendly place for everyone--the new Learn-ing and Living program makes sure freshmen don't get overwhelmed by coursework. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.

Chancellor Mark Emmert says LSU is often overlooked (actually, he says, "ghettoized") by Northerners who suspect it hasn't changed much. But a visit to the chemistry department tells a different story. The department head, Isaiah Warner, is black and, in the last decade, he's made LSU the nation's top producer of black chemistry Ph.D.s. The rest of the university is starting to follow his lead. "Students all around the region are beginning to realize we're supportive of minorities," says Emmert, who adds that the school has seen "a huge increase in interest" from Northern applicants. Twenty-four percent of the 29,000 students are minorities. LSU hosts many minority-recruitment programs (several specializing in the sciences) and a "learning community" focusing on race, hip-hop and sports. And the dining hall is no longer named "The Plantation Room." It's a start.

Georgia State and Florida A&M are also minority-friendly and Southern; Occidental students also apply to UCLA and USC. MOST HAPPY
Goucher College, Baltimore, Md.

Goucher rightly calls itself "a small college with a big view of the world." Through Colltown, a network of Baltimore-area colleges, Goucher's 1,250 students can take one class a semester at any of seven other campuses--including Johns Hopkins and Towson University. Goucher also offers students a lot of individual attention, with a student-teacher ratio of just 10 to 1. Most professors give out their home numbers, says John Olszewski Jr., senior class president. And for an urban campus, Goucher is unusually bucolic and green. "You feel like you're in the country," says Olszewski. "We have deer, rabbits, squirrels." And lots of happy students. In a national survey of student engagement, 93 percent of Goucher seniors said their experience there was good or excellent.

Goucher students also apply to Vassar and Skidmore. MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Rhodes College, Memphis, Tenn.

Applications have been way up at this small liberal-arts college founded in 1848. Half the 483 freshmen graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes. Maybe they're all coming for the new $40 million library or the gorgeous Gothic campus and palatial dorm rooms. But since more students nationwide are heading to graduate school instead of facing the job market, it may also have something to do with Rhodes's record: 97 percent of its students who apply to law school are accepted (the national average is 62 percent); the numbers are comparable for med-school applicants. It looks like their future is as bright as Rhodes's.

Rhodes students also apply to Vanderbilt, Emory, Davidson and Duke.