In Texas, though, many students already know they're in -- before they even apply. Everyone who finishes in the top 10 percent of his or her class at any high school in Texas is guaranteed admission at any public university in the state.
The Texas legislature passed the "Top 10" law seven years ago in an effort to promote ethnic diversity. How well has it worked? As Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, it appears to have worked too well at the University of Texas in Austin.
Call Laura Torres the top 10 percent plan's "poster child." She's smart, Hispanic, and poor. Her family lives in public housing in San Antonio.
"If they didn't have the top 10 percent at my school, I wouldn't have even thought about applying to U.T.," says Torres, who first learned of the program from her high school guidance counselor.
"She said, 'Keep up your grades and stay in the top 10 percent and you can go to any university you want in Texas.' I was thinking, 'Wow. So I can even go to one of the rich universities? One of the really nice ones? Like U.T.?'"
Torres is now a sophomore, one of thousands of "Top 10" students admitted since the law was passed in 1997. According to state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, it all happened because of a federal court decision outlawing affirmative action.
"Legally, the Hopwood case here in Texas said you may not use race as a factor in admissions," says Wentworth. "The legislature responded by saying 'OK, if we can't use race, we're gonna say everybody in the top 10 percent. And that'll sweep up some African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as whites'. ... And it did."
It did because so many schools are essentially segregated. For example, Torres' high school is almost entirely Hispanic. So most of its top 10 percent are Hispanic.
Larry Faulkner, president of the University of Texas, says "we have gone beyond where we were when affirmative action had its last year here." And, he says, that's precisely what they wanted to do.
Still, most of the kids entering under the Top 10 plan are white, because the guarantee applies to every high school in Texas.
But if every student entitled to come to the University of Texas actually came, would the university be able to handle it? "No, we couldn't come close to handling it," says Faulkner. "And in fact, that's where we are now."
Where they are right now is almost out of control: forced to accept more and more "Top 10" percenters. This year, they made up two-thirds of the freshman class.
Faulkner, who long supported the law, now wants it revised to cap the number of top 10 percenters at no more than half of any incoming class.
But Sen. Wentworth is leading a drive to repeal the law entirely, and he has support from many voters who think their kids are now being shut out of the system.
"The current situation in Texas is that you can have a young man who is an Eagle Scout, who's president of his student council and captain of his football team. But because he's in the top 12 percent, he's not automatically admitted," says Wentworth. "But somebody else who's in the top 10 percent, who didn't even take the recommended curriculum for college work, who took the minimum curriculum, automatically goes to the University of Texas at Austin -- and that's not fair."
Not fair is exactly how Elizabeth Aicklen describes her experience with the "Top 10" plan.
"Everyone in my family has gone to U.T. I've lived in Austin for my whole life. I love it," says Aicklen, who took a lot of advanced placement classes to improve her class rank.
Elizabeth's problem, if you can call it that, was that she went to Westlake, the most competitive public high school in Austin, filled with overachievers from upscale families.
Did kids talk about their ranking all the time? Were they thinking of it constantly? "All the time," says Aicklen. "After every test or every final, people were pulling out their calculators."
Aicklen had a 3.9 GPA, and she still didn't make the top 10 at her school.
But 80 miles away in San Antonio, Torres' high school, Fox Tech, was vastly different. There were fewer challenging courses, less competition, and many kids from poor families. Torres had a 3.4-3.5 GPA, which put her in the top 10 percent of her high school. She didn't take any advanced placement classes.
If Torres had gone to Westlake, she'd barely have made the top 50 percent. And if Aicklen had gone to Fox Tech, she might have been the valedictorian. As for SAT scores, Aicklen also scored hundreds of points higher than Torres.
"My scores didn't matter. It was just - I was in the top 10 percent, so I was admitted automatically," says Torres.
"I've had emails and letters and phone calls from people who literally have changed schools because their kid was in too competitive a high school, and knew they couldn't graduate in the top 10 percent," says Wentworth.
"So they've moved to a less competitive and less challenging high school so their kid could graduate in the top 10 percent."
Aicklen's parents never considered such a drastic step. They assumed that her grades, resume, and family legacy would still win her one of those precious seats at the university that are not filled by "Top 10s." They were wrong.
"I think it's a great way to give an opportunity to someone who would not otherwise have it. But at the same time, I didn't get what I wanted," says Aicklen. "I felt like I didn't get what I deserved."
When Stahl told Torres about the academic scores Aicklen received, Torres said: "I'm kinda questioning it. I don't know what to think. I guess it is kinda unfair. ...It's a very complicated issue. Now I feel really bad."
Wentworth says it's unfair to both parties. "It's unfair to the more rigorous student. It's also unfair to the other one who's not as prepared. Because what happens is they get in these flagship institutions and they're not prepared academically for the very rigorous training they get at that higher education institution," says Wentworth. "And some of them don't last. They wind up quitting, very frustrated because they weren't prepared even though they graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class."
But statistics at the University of Texas says Wentworth is wrong.
Faulkner says kids from minority schools are doing very well at the university. "If you reach the top of your high school class, you know how to work. You know how to organize your time," says Faulkner. "And those two things count a lot in an institution like this."
Torres says that finding out about campus resources, including tutoring, has helped. Now, she's getting mostly A's and B's in her classes.
"I don't think that it's dumbed down the University of Texas. We have the highest graduation rate in this history of the university," says Faulkner. "We have the highest four-year graduation rate in the history of the university. We have the highest freshman retention rates in the history of the university. So I don't think there's any evidence."
But how about the quality of the students? "We have the highest SAT scores in the history of the university," says Faulkner. "We have the highest class rank in the history of the university."
So why does he want to modify the program? "Because we're going to be run over by it," he says, which is why he wants to place a cap on the number of "Top 10" students - no more than half of any class. But advocates of outright repeal have a powerful new argument. The Supreme Court recently overturned the affirmative action ruling that prompted the top 10 law in the first place.
"The Supreme Court of the United States has now said 'No, no, no, you may use race - on a voluntary, limited basis,' so that gives us the option of using it or not," says Wentworth. "So we don't need the top 10 percent rule anymore."
But Faulkner says he needs both top 10 and affirmative action, because blacks and Hispanics will soon outnumber whites in the state of Texas.
"We're still far too small in the fraction of Texas leadership that we're able to develop from among minority populations," says Faulkner. "In a state that is already about 35 percent Hispanic and about 11 percent African-American, we are not close to addressing the question of how to develop leadership for those populations."
That's little comfort to Aicklen. She's attending college in San Antonio in hopes of transferring to U.T. next year. It's still her dream school.
She has no doubt that she would have been accepted before the "Top 10" law took effect. "I feel like because I happened to be in a better school than some, I've been punished," says Aicklen.
And Torres has been rewarded. She's thriving at U.T., but with all the talk of repeal, she wonders, and worries, about the kids back at Fox Tech High School who are hoping to follow her lead.
"I just hope that whatever they do, whatever decision they make, that they will try to make a decision in a way that it won't discourage kids in high school to not even try," says Torres. She believe that the best effect of the Top 10 plan is that it has "raised the sights" of students all over Texas.
"Because that's what it did to me," she says.