What U.S. Colleges and Universities REALLY Want

3 Misconceptions You Might Have About U.S. College Admissions

The years immediately preceding a student’s enrollment in college are exciting, exhilarating, and heartwarming, but it can be an equally stressful, frenzied, and anxiety-inducing period of time. The college admissions landscape changes frequently, and applicant pools seem to swell while rates of admission decrease. These changes put pressure on students to outperform their peers, take loads of advanced courses, and boost their academic transcript by any means possible, sometimes to the detriment of the students’ well-being. 

Here we explore some common misconceptions about the college admissions process in the United States and take a look at what U.S. colleges and universities actually want from prospective students. 


Myth #1: You need to hire an outside college admissions specialist. 

It’s not unusual to desire extra help with all the tasks associated with applying to and gaining acceptance to college. People cite several reasons they want to pay someone outside of their child’s school to help get their child into the best college possible: a private consultant can get to know their child personally and find the school that’s the best fit, they can reduce stress on families by being available for questions, they can help with the dreaded college essay, and, hired early enough, they can advise their child which classes to take throughout high school. And with the national counselor-to-student ratio being 482:1, hiring outside help isn’t an outrageous idea. 

If you select a school with specialized college counseling resources, however, hiring an external consultant is unnecessary. At St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Va., for example, the counselor-to-student ratio is 30:1. All three of the full-time college counselors have prior experience working in college admissions, making them highly knowledgeable about what colleges want. Separate academic support specialists at the School provide student mental health counseling and learning support, a luxury at many U.S. public schools where the same individual might serve in all three roles.

Having been on campus with your child for years, school counselors already know your child well, care about them personally, and are available for your questions along the way. They already meet with students several times during Grades 9 – 12 to counsel them about which courses to take. At St. Anne’s-Belfield specifically, counselors use a highly individualized approach to guide students and their parents/guardians in all phases of the college process, from researching, investigating, and suggesting colleges that align with students’ academic and extracurricular interests; to assisting in the various phases of the applications processes; to consultation and evaluation of the student’s acceptances and options. Hiring an outside college admissions specialist just isn’t necessary if the school you are considering offers similar support.

Myth #2: Colleges expect students to take as many AP (Advanced Placement) courses as possible. 

Advanced Placement courses are college-level courses offered to students in high school as a way to possibly earn college credit early. If students score well on the AP exam at the end of the course, they might get to exempt that class in college, saving the student and their family time and money. AP classes can be a good way to experience the rigor of college classes while students still have support of their high school teachers. However, there are some downsides to a heavy AP course load. The work often interferes with students’ ability to pursue interests and passions outside of academics. These outside interests can be what sets your student apart from others when colleges look at applications. Furthermore, colleges don’t always accept AP courses. In fact, a recent study* found that 86% of the top 153 U.S. colleges and universities “restrict the awarding of AP credits,” meaning they might not accept AP credits in all subject areas, or they might insist students earn a top score of 5 on the exam before awarding credit.

A 2016 report published by Harvard University states that “taking large numbers of AP courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas…and that even the most advanced students may benefit from avoiding course overload and devoting more time for scholarly work that allows unstructured reflection and encourages the development of intellectual curiosity.” 

To strike a balance between academic rigor and the pursuit of extracurriculars, experts recommend students take AP-level courses in subjects they already love and spread them out over multiple years. The highly individualized college counseling available at St. Anne’s-Belfield can achieve this balance and help students succeed at every step along the way, demonstrating the “sustained achievement” top universities are looking for. 


Myth #3: Colleges only value students’ academic performance.

Your student’s academic performance matters. The courses they choose, the grades they earn, their success over a period of time… it all matters to colleges who are considering your student for admission. When you’re considering private schools for your student that will best prepare them for these competitive colleges, you might be tempted to go with the highest-ranked private school you can find. But, as one international student discovered, rankings can be deceiving. Norman Ye '15 explains, “My family and I considered boarding schools with great academic reputations, as reflected by ranking. We compared schools with similar academic reputations, advanced-level course offerings, and diversity. Granted, we did have an agent to help us, due to the information gap and lack of understanding of how things work in the States. However, looking back, I feel that ranking can be highly biased, especially towards schools who are willing to pay more to rank higher, which does not accurately reflect how good a school is and your experience at the school. And rankings don’t reflect the culture at a school, which I consider to be more important in shaping who I turned out to be. I would encourage the prospective students and family to look beyond a ranking that can be easily altered.”

Over and over again, colleges show us they take great interest in what students do outside of school. They want to know students beyond their test scores and learn about them through their essays, recommendation letters, résumés, and activities. Colleges want to see sustained involvement in meaningful endeavors, and they love to see evidence of leadership within those activities. Look for a school that offers students all of it – rigorous coursework under the guidance of highly qualified instructors, a plethora of advanced course options, small class sizes, and personal attention, plus multiple community service opportunities, clubs, arts programs, and athletics. In this manner, you can ensure your student is positioned for success from their very first day, and at the end of a rewarding and enriching high school experience, will land at a college everyone’s happy with. 


Learn more about how your child may live and learn as creative and curious individuals at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. Our college counselors help create a rich educational experience that nurtures the whole child and positions each student for acceptance to a college or university where they will find both challenge and joy. Contact Associate Director of Upper School Admission Anna Bell (abell@stab.org) or visit www.stab.org/apply/upper-school





Making Caring Common Project. (2016). (rep.). Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b7c56e255b02c683659fe43/t/5bae62a6b208fc9b61a81ca9/1538155181693/report_turningthetide.pdf


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