By Lori Dunlap
Now that the school year is in full swing for traditional students and homeschoolers alike, families with high school-aged students have more than fall leaves, crisp air, and pumpkin spice lattes on their minds. For many, this is college planning season, which brings with it admissions applications, essays, and financial aid forms. While this can be both an exciting and anxiety-producing time for everyone involved, students coming from a homeschooling background often face an additional challenge in their application process as they wonder how best to represent their non-traditional educational path and learning experiences.
As the homeschooling population has grown, many colleges and universities have begun developing dedicated pages (or at least separate sections) for homeschooled applicants on their admissions websites. While this additional information has been helpful, homeschooling families still have important concerns, many of which aren’t addressed directly on college sites. For example, in a recent national survey I conducted in conjunction with the Oregon Home Education Network (OHEN), homeschooling parents around the country shared some of their more pressing questions about college admissions, including, “What activities/documents best demonstrate that a homeschooled student is a great candidate for your school?” and “Are you open to other ways of meeting admission requirements for transcripts, credit hours, other items that homeschoolers/unschoolers may not have?” The most frequently expressed concern, however, was about admissions officers’ perceptions of homeschooled applicants. As one parent put it, “What image comes to mind when you hear of an applicant who was homeschooled?”
I decided to pose these questions and concerns directly to admissions officers via an online survey a few weeks ago, and have received responses from over forty admissions professionals working in colleges and universities in all regions of the country. The full report of our findings from this research will be available in November, but the key recommendation coming through clearly is, as one admissions officer stated, “Be sure to address the inevitable questions that arise regarding homeschooling, including how rigorous the curriculum has been, how many perspectives the student has been exposed to, and how much interaction the student has had with other high school students.” In short, almost every response so far has addressed the need for homeschoolers to communicate both the depth and breadth of their learning, and also to provide evidence of their ability to work with others. So, let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Is This Student Academically Qualified?
It’s not surprising that this is an admissions officer’s first question about any applicant. For traditional students, test scores and a high school transcript with grades assigned by licensed teachers usually answer this question clearly. For homeschooled students, however, transcript formats, course descriptions, and grades (often assigned by parents, if at all) vary widely, which makes it difficult for admissions professionals to appreciate what your child has studied and accomplished. To help with this, here’s what admissions officers advise:
- “Check with the schools you are considering and make sure you understand their requirements.” Some schools want traditional-looking transcripts with course names, descriptions, and grades, while others accept narrative transcripts, and others have no specific requirements at all. You’ll need to create some type of documentation, though, and may need to be creative about grouping the work your child has done into a “course,” so it’s good to think about this ahead of time. Regardless of the transcript format, you should be prepared to provide clear and detailed descriptions of the work that was undertaken and completed.
- “Take online or community college classes.” Taking at least a few formal classes and including them on the transcript demonstrates academic ability, provides objective grades for admissions officers to consider, and also connects your student with instructors who may be able to write letters of recommendation attesting to their ability.
- “Take at least two SAT Subject Tests.” Even schools that are “test optional” (don’t require SAT or ACT scores) recommend taking two or three SAT subject tests as additional evidence that your child has mastered core subject areas. The “Math 2” test is preferred over “Math 1”, and you can choose any of the other tests that will best showcase your child’s interests and abilities.
Can This Student Appreciate Different Perspectives?
Admissions officers want to know that our students have been exposed to a wide variety of ideas and perspectives to ensure that they have a foundation for “thinking critically,” a big focus in college classes. In addition to taking a few formal classes, two other ways to demonstrate breadth of learning include:
- Reading Lists: Creating and providing a list of all the books your child has read during high school, both fiction and non-fiction, will give admissions officers some insight into your child’s interests, in addition to showing the broad range of topics and perspectives she has considered.
- Personal Essays: Almost all colleges and universities require several essays, so this is a great opportunity for your child to choose a topic that allows him to compare and contrast different aspects of an issue that interests him, not to mention his writing ability.
Can This Student Work With Others?
It seems that there is still some level of concern about how much time homeschooled students spend working and socializing with others. When asked, “How well do you expect homeschooled applicants to cope socially in their first year of college compared to traditional high school graduates?” in our online survey, 67% answered that homeschooled students would do “as well” as traditional high school graduates. However, 27% thought that they would “cope worse” socially, and only 7% thought they would “cope better.”
This concern was mirrored in many of the comments as well, so the main piece of advice here is, as one director said, “Make sure they have engaged in group activities of any kind, athletic teams, academic competitions, scouts, music ensembles or bands, etc.” These activities can be included on the application, in appropriate areas of the transcript, and can also be referred to in essays. Letters of recommendation also show involvement in classes, teams, and clubs, but make sure to have someone other than you (the parent) write the recommendation. While this may seem obvious, this suggestion was mentioned surprisingly frequently. It will take some advance planning, but we need to make sure to ask for letters of recommendation from other adults who know our kids well and can enthusiastically speak to their abilities, including teachers, tutors, coaches, and employers.
The good news is, as one admissions director pointed out, “Homeschooling is more recognizable than it once was. This makes many of us in the admissions community more comfortable in evaluating a student’s readiness for the rigors of a challenging college curriculum.” So, it seems clear that colleges and universities are ready to welcome our children and help them be successful—we just need to help them help us.
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. She is now pursuing her long-held interests in research and writing, and writes regularly about homeschooling and higher education. You can find her at http://www.teachyourown.org.