Some campus wags say that succeeding in college is a whole lot easier than enduring the process to get in. That's got to be an exaggeration, as anybody knows who's taken organic chemistry or tried to figure out what that economics professor might be saying in the lecture hall. But the hyperbole has a point. The maze of forms, policies and odd new nomenclature (quick, what do FAFSA, ACT and "fourth meal period" mean?)--combined with standardized tests, financial-aid worries, campus-tour schedules and those nettlesome relatives otherwise known as Mom and Dad--all these are enough to make any college-bound senior wonder, "Wait! Didn't Bill Gates not bother to graduate from Harvard?"

The stresses are not merely the byproduct of high-school competition that would embarrass the characters of "Lord of the Flies." (No, budding English-lit majors, there won't be a quiz on that novel.) Nor were they created by magazine rankings, private counselors or nudging grandmas. Fact is, the numbers tell a striking tale over the last generation. Consistent with demographic predictions, the total of high-school graduates has been going up over the past decade (nearly 3 million in 2003). Yet that in reality is a bit lower than the annual totals of 25 or so years ago. However, the percentage of graduates who actually go to college has been steadily rising--almost two thirds in recent years, as compared with about half in the late 1970s. Particularly at the elite schools--and even those considered only "highly selective"--the number of freshmen has remained fairly constant. That means more Darwinian struggle for the openings--and more anxiety for the college-bound set. The law of supply and demand was never so cruel (or so easy to understand, notwithstanding that economics professor).

This is where we come in. The ninth annual NEWSWEEK-Kaplan Guide is designed to make the process of exploring, and then executing, college choices more sane for high-school students and their parents. In these 264 pages--using the journalistic resources of NEWSWEEK and the educational expertise of Kaplan (both owned by The Washington Post Company) --we survey the tectonic landscape that college admissions has become.

Once upon a time you took your SAT, typed up your essay, sent in checks to a range of schools and that was that. It wasn't exactly simple, but competent seniors could rest assured they'd get into a good college without making the last year of high school a combination of marathon and blood sport. These days, dramatic change is a central attribute of the process. Those who don't know what's new--whether in Early Decision plans (page 10) or essay strategies (page 16) or "legacy" policies (page 20) or scholarship rules (page 30) or affirmative action (page 35)--will be at a major disadvantage.

No changes are more critical than those coming for the SAT. The 2005 NEWSWEEK-Kaplan Guide previews the new test (page 24) and provides tips for taking its writing section (page 27). And for the first time we're offering a full-length sample of the SAT (page 95).

Throughout the guide, we've tried to provide statistics and graphs to illustrate new trends. So if you want to know the superchoosy colleges (page 12), the most popular AP exams (page 28) or the richest endowments (page 34), they're here. Our most popular feature, "America's 25 Hot Schools" (page 38), too, uses numbers to make its case. But not everything can be quantified.

Our impressions from interviewing scores of students, parents, professors and administrators count. That's how we learned about the largest Jacuzzi in the West (page 37), the toughest classes in the land (page 70) and getting rich quick (page 71). And, of course, the Rat Olympics (part of a new winter course at Williams). Take a look at the photo on page 36--I'm just sure the white-haired fellow looks a little like my old economics professor.