We can’t tell you how many times kids tell us they want to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, etc… but when we ask them why, they have no good reason. Colleges want to know WHY you are applying—are you impressed by their world-famous chemistry program? The well-known English department? The art history department with a specialty in Renaissance art? Oftentimes students with particular interests do themselves a great disservice by not bothering to check if the schools on their list match their own academic interest. For example, if you like ancient languages, you’d want to apply to a school that at least offered classes in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Sanskrit and the like. You may find that schools that you’d barely considered before end up being top in the country in particular areas. How can you check? First, it’s often helpful to consult the graduate rankings in a publication like US News and World Report, although keep in mind that sometimes graduate programs and faculty are separate from the undergraduate, sometimes shared. Once you have that list, comb the web sites, course guides and published info from colleges to see if they are strong in your area(s) of interest. Finally, call the school or visit and speak to professors, visit the library, check out the holdings — in short, make an INFORMED decision about where you are applying and why.
Also, bear in mind that if you state a reason for applying to a school, it should be for academic reasons. Unless a particular school has an extracurricular program that is truly unique (and, ideally, ties in to an academic interest), the school is going to care far more about what you want to study than about the backpacking trips you want to lead and the underprivileged children you want to tutor. Those are all great things, but clubs, community service programs, and intramural sports are available at almost every college these days.