While students around the United States are heading back to school, the nation's leading colleges are getting an annual report card of their own. The Princeton Review has just published its 2004 guide to the "Best 351 Colleges in America." Together with detailed profiles of each school, the guide ranks the leading 20 colleges in 63 categories covering everything from the most selective to best academic experience to the top party schools.

High school students hoping to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point face stiff competition. The Princeton Review has named the Academy the most selective college in the United States. This past year it received 13,000 applications and accepted just over 1,300, or 10 percent, according to Colonel Michael Jones, West Point's admissions director.

He says that while the Academy has always been selective, admissions have recently gotten even more competitive. "The last two years since 9/11[/01] for us has brought a different kind of young man and young woman here, who want to do something for their country and the world rather than focus so much on what they can do for themselves and making a fortune. It's really been a sea change," he says.

The Princeton Review's most selective colleges are those that have the lowest acceptance rates, and attract applicants with the best academic records and test scores. Those statistics are provided by the colleges themselves.

But Princeton Review editor Robert Franek says most of the other rankings in the guide are determined by the comments of some 106,000 students across the United States.

"We go out to the campuses, and we survey in two ways, either on line, as well as on paper. We had a tremendous showing for this year. It's nearly 300 students per campus as an average, but we had several thousand from larger schools responding to our survey," he says. "We consider them the experts, not me and not the Princeton Review, but the students who are already at these schools. And we just let them talk."

This year those comments helped Yale University in Connecticut top another highly coveted list, the best overall academic experience. Elizabeth Wilcox, who's beginning her third year at Yale, believes the ranking is well deserved.

"It's such a unique experience to be able to sit in a classroom with the professor who wrote the book you're studying from," she says. "And besides being big names in their fields, they also have amazing things to say. The only drawback to that is that for students like me, who go into Yale not quite sure what they want to focus in, it's very hard to narrow down what you want to do, because everything is so excellent there."

Students at DePaul University in Chicago topped the list for being the happiest with their college experience, while the University of Colorado at Boulder was named top party school. Marlboro College in Vermont was ranked highest in the category known as "best academic bang for your buck," meaning the school where you can get the best education at the most reasonable cost.

Robert Franek says that's a relatively new ranking. And with college tuitions skyrocketing, it's probably one of the most helpful.

"We're looking at lots of different factors. It's not the overall sticker price for a school, but it's the amount of free money a school gives away, both through academic merit grants or through other types of scholarships," he says. "I think Marlboro is a really good example of a school that gives away a great deal of free money. Parents will be met with an open door to the financial aid office, to really sit down and talk with a financial aid counselor, making sure that a family can afford the overall sticker price of the school."

Robert Franek also stresses that the rankings are just one small part of the guide, which has been publishing annual surveys since 1992. Each college gets a two-page profile covering everything from the dress style of the students to the teaching style of the professors. This year's edition has expanded to include six more schools, among them the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York state, Seattle University, an urban Roman Catholic institution in Washington state, and Flagler College, a small liberal arts school in Florida. In other words, schools for all kinds of students.

Robert Franek says the guide tries to look beyond the nation's most elite schools to help young people find the academic environment that's right for them.

"These are what we would consider the best 351 schools based on lots of things. We're looking for innovative curriculum development programs, great internship programs, schools where students are really happy," he says. "I'm so pleased when a school that might not be as popular as one of the 40 most competitive schools in the country, academically speaking, rises to the top, or even makes one of the top 20 lists. And that gets the word out about a school that's right for a kid who might not have known about that school a couple months ago."

Compiling the guide has given Robert Franek an insider's look not only at American colleges but at college students over the years. He says most seem to be content with their choice of schools, possibly because they're taking the selection process very seriously.

"I think kids right now are much smarter shoppers than they were, let's say five or 10 years ago," he says. "They're looking for great academic and undergraduate experiences. They're looking for life credits outside experiential learning and things like that. They're looking for wonderful facilities, Internet resources, things that it's definitely good to see that they're asking."

After all, says Robert Franek, every school in the book is rated among the top 351 in the United States. And he notes that sometimes a bad ranking can be an incentive to change. One university was among the top ranked in a category known as "dorms like dungeons." That school recently announced that, with the Princeton Review ranking in mind, it's building new student housing.