Planning for college can be one of the most exciting times in a young person's life. But it can also be stressful, because there's a lot that has to happen before you're actually moving into your new dorm room. The process of selecting a college or university and applying for admission probably starts around the time you take your PSATs and concludes (happily, we hope) by April of your senior year in high school when you're notified of your status (acceptance or rejection) at the college of your choice.

Whether you are a student or a parent, the entire college admission process can seem mysterious. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will make the admissions process much more understandable. With the help of Duke University director of undergraduate admissions Christoph Guttentag, we will use Duke University in Durham, N.C., as a real-world example of how college admission works in America.

Photo courtesy Duke Photography
Students admitted to Duke University beat the odds in the school's rigorous and highly competitive admission process.

Remember that every college and university -- and there are many, many schools in the United States, not to mention abroad -- has its own admissions standards and processes. So, depending upon where you apply, your experience may be different from the rather rigorous one employed by nationally ranked Duke. However, you'll definitely learn something about what can be a somewhat mysterious process -- something that can help you gain admission to the college of your choice!

Let's start at the beginning: When should you start thinking about applying?