American students are heading back to school, and that means it is also time for the latest rankings of the nation's top colleges and universities. The Princeton Review has released its 2006 edition, The Best 361 Colleges: The Smart Student's Guide to Colleges. Now in its 14th year, the Princeton Review guide includes two-page profiles of each school, selected from some 3500 American colleges and universities in all. It also features top 20 rankings in 62 different categories, covering everything from class size to dorm food to campus politics.

The Princeton Review has named Reed College the best overall academic experience for undergraduates in the United States. The Portland, Oregon school was singled out based on the quality of the student body, the level of teaching and the academic workload.

Reed senior Beverly Lau, who is majoring in physics, says that what is special about her school is that the students are there to learn. "Everyone here is so passionate about the subjects they are studying, and I think that the discussions that emerge from that are some of the best discussions I've ever experienced." Ms. Lau says that when she talks to friends from other schools, she often gets the impression their goal is to finish college, not to experience college. "And I think that's not the goal here at Reed. I think the goal is to learn as much as possible, and you can always crack open a book and learn more than you already knew."

The Princeton Review rankings often differ dramatically from top schools named by other college guides. Robert Franek, lead author of The Best 361 Colleges, believes that is because of the way the way the guide is compiled. "The unique thing about The Best 361 Colleges is that it is based on a little over 110,000 students responding to surveys on he explains. "So we go right to whom we would consider college experts -- students in the classrooms. There are 70 questions overall, and they deal with anything affecting a student's quality of life. Is this school a religious school? Is it a student activist school? Is it accepting of a gay community? Does it have great professors? All of those things roll up into making sure a student is happy with their experience."

If college-bound students want an academic community made up of many different ethnic and national groups, for example, they might check out George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. It was named the school with the most diverse student population. Ramachandra Yellapragada recently arrived at George Mason from India. "It is great to see people from 50 different countries wandering around the campus," he says. "When you sit in a classroom with people from different countries and they think differently about the same problem, you get 50 different solutions."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked as this year's most selective school, admitting just 16% of its highly qualified applicants. MIT's focus on science and technology reflects what Robert Franek sees as a broader trend in college academics these days. "I think there has been a move, certainly in college majors, focusing on practical-based majors, majors based in the sciences and technology."

Mr. Franek says this year's Princeton Review survey pointed up other trends as well. "One of the things we found is lots of high school students looking at undergraduate schools today are focused on that practical-based experience, looking for internships when they are first-year students, focusing on service-based learning while in the classroom."

And he believes this is changing the traditional liberal arts curriculum that has been a mainstay of undergraduate education in the United States. "I think lots of schools are focusing on what sort of things students are learning in the classroom and then their practical-based application outside the classroom while still undergraduates."

With soaring tuition costs, Robert Franek says students are also making college choices with financial aid packages in mind. And they are looking for cutting-edge computer resources. "So many schools are much more connected to the Internet and wireless capabilities in general than they were five years ago or so," he says. "Now students expect that colleges will be able to provide them that great accessibility."

One of the most publicized rankings is among the least welcome to college administrators. This year the Princeton Review named the University of Wisconsin at Madison the nation's top party school, based on what students report about alcohol and drug use, daily study time and the popularity of fraternities and sororities.

Susan Crowley directs the University of Wisconsin's Pace Project, aimed at reducing high-risk drinking on campus. She describes the ranking as a wake-up call, in the sense that university officials know there's still work to be done to curb student drinking. "We're also pleased that we've seen some improvement in terms of our culture around excessive drinking that causes harm to students in the community," Ms. Crowley says.

The Pace Project works to keep parents informed of the dangers of high-risk drinking among students, points up the risks of off-campus house parties, and supports alternative ways to have fun. Princeton Review author Robert Franek says the guide's rankings can help spur change on campuses. But its primary goal is to help students select the college that fits both their academic needs and their personality. "Most colleges and universities are going to be that student's home for four years, so you want to make sure that it is going to be a good experience, not only in the classroom but outside the classroom as well."

Evidence of the guide's popularity can be found in the interest it generates each year. Princeton Review Best Colleges rankings make news headlines, get posted on college web sites, and draw comments from talk show hosts and education officials alike. Perhaps most important of all, Robert Franek says half of all students turn to the Princeton Review guide or its Internet site during their college search.