The Homeschooled Student’s Guide to Applying to College
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The nature of a homeschool education differs fundamentally from that of a traditional one, and admissions committees alter their expectations for homeschooled students accordingly.
Though homeschooled students are evaluated differently than their peers, they still need to complete all the same steps in the college application process. The lack of resources available to homeschooled students can make navigating the admissions process a challenge. Thankfully, we’re here to help. In this blog post, we’ve created a guide to applying to college as a homeschooled student.
Keep a GPA and Detailed Records
Typically, a grade in a high school class is determined by comparing your performance to that of your peers or a standardized grading scale. Over the course of your 4 years as a student, grades are submitted by your teachers and recorded on your transcript, and a grade point average is calculated. Your grade point average is sometimes ranked against those of your classmates, which gives colleges an idea of how you performed in the context of your school.
However, this system doesn’t apply to homeschoolers. Because you are the only student in a class that you or your parent(s) have designed, colleges have little knowledge of the rigor of your courses or whether you truly performed well in them or not. For this reason, it’s important to keep as detailed a set of records on the nature of your coursework and your performance as possible.
Colleges often ask homeschooled students to provide both a GPA and detailed course descriptions of all the classes they have taken. It is critical that you track your performance throughout high school and ensure that you earn a letter grade for every course you take, just like a traditional student would. In addition, keep records of the textbooks you have used, projects and assignments you have completed, readings you’ve been assigned, and any other information that could help an admissions committee understand how your course stacks up to a traditional class.
When writing course descriptions, it’s important to stress objective measures of performance, like tests. If you can demonstrate that your performance was impressive on an objective scale, and not just in the opinion of your parent or other instructor, it will go a long way in bolstering adcoms’ perception of your GPA.
Supplement homeschooled courses with courses at a local community college, if possible. While you can only do so much to communicate the design and rigor of a homeschooled course to an admissions committees, community college courses are often graded on a standardized scale that offers adcoms an unambiguous demonstration of your ability.
Prepare Thoroughly for Standardized Tests
Obviously, standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT are important for every applicant; however, for the homeschooled student, they are especially so. As previously mentioned, objective measures of performance are of the utmost importance for homeschooled students. The SAT and ACT give adcoms a basis for comparison between you and other students in your area where little other exists.
Because there is often some degree of variation in student’s performances on the SAT and the ACT, many students choose to try their hand at both, since colleges typically only look at your highest overall score. However, we recommend taking the ACT, at least for the time being: the relatively untested nature of the new SAT, as well as the dearth of preparation materials, can put many students choosing to take the redesigned test at a disadvantage.
While the SAT and ACT are important for all applicants, other tests, like AP or IB exams, or elective exams, like the National Latin Exam, typically have a smaller impact. This isn’t the case for homeschooled students. Standardized exams that accompany a certain course, like AP and IB exams, are extremely important for homeschooled students, as high scores on these tests can corroborate the claims that your homeschooled version of AP Biology is just as challenging as the version offered at your local high school. Elective exams provide yet another objective measure of accomplishment in a field, and the more of these you can accrue on your application, the better off you’ll be.
The fact that standardized tests are so heavily weighted on your application may seem unfair, but it’s a tradeoff – your scores matter more, but you are also given significantly more time and freedom to prepare for your exams than the traditional student. Homeschooled students set their own schedules, and are not forced to spend the bulk of the day in classes. Thus, they are free to work test preparation into their everyday curriculum, meet with a tutor during the daytime, and/or design and adhere to a strict study schedule. Traditional students, who are busy with classes during the day and homework in the evening, do not always enjoy the same freedom.
If you’re a homeschooled student who plans to take a standardized test, don’t squander the flexibility afforded to you. We recommend prioritizing test prep in the same way you would academics. For the traditional student, test prep is something they’re forced to take on in the evenings or weekends in addition to homework; accordingly, they often approach it with less vigor, dedication, and effort than they do their schoolwork, which is perceived as more pressing and important. If you can set aside time every day to devote to test prep, just like you would any other class, you can avoid falling into the trap of perceiving test prep as “extra work” and give it the focus and attention it deserves. Your scores will thank you!
Start Thinking About Recommendations Early
The process of getting a letter of recommendation is not terribly complex for the traditional student, at least in the sense that they have no shortage of potential recommenders. This may not be the case for a homeschooled student. While a typical student asks their instructors to write recommendations, chances are your instructors are one or both of your parents. While they probably have lovely things to say about you, you typically can’t ask a family member to write a letter of recommendation, on account of the obvious issue of bias (though some schools, such as MIT, allow for one parent recommendation). Therefore, you need another credible adult with intimate knowledge of your academic and extracurricular accomplishments, as well as a deep understanding of your personality and motivations, to write your recommendation.
For a non-homeschooled student, the figure we just described would be a candidate for an additional recommender. It’s often difficult to forge a relationship like this with an adult who isn’t an instructor. Unfortunately, as a homeschooled student, finding an outside recommender is your only option. To make sure you have the recommendations you need come applications season, it’s important to start thinking about recommenders early.
If you’re involved in a club sports team, a homeschool academic team or extracurricular activity, a summer program, or a non-profit, the leaders for these programs can be great recommenders. Because you may not see them as often as you see your teachers and they likely have little knowledge of your pursuits outside the realm of the activity they supervise, it’s smart to provide these recommenders with your resume, including a detailed description of your other extracurricular pursuits and your academic performance.
Just like we recommend diversity in the subjects their recommenders teach for traditional students, it’s important to make sure your two (or more) recommenders can offer unique perspectives on your accomplishments. Don’t solicit recommendations from two sports coaches, but rather aim to have two that know you in an academic context, and perhaps one recommender who knows you in an extracurricular context. Candidates for recommenders in an academic context include tutors, community college professors, or any college professors with whom you have conducted research.
Brainstorm ideas for potential recommenders well in advance, and get these requests out early; unlike teachers, these figures may not be accustomed to writing letters, and it’s always prudent to provide a buffer in case letters take longer than expected or recommenders have questions.
Acknowledge Your Education, But Don’t be Defined By It
A huge mistake for homeschooled students to make is to allow every personal aspect of their applications, like their essays and interviews, to be defined by the fact that they are homeschooled. Granted, being a homeschooled student does provide a unique high school experience. However, being homeschooled is not in and of itself unique, and relying on your education to be the sole factor differentiating you from thousands of other applicants will ultimately not be a successful application strategy.
Like any other applicant, your essay and your interview should provide admissions committees insight into your personal history, interests, and passions. Just like a traditionally educated student wouldn’t make their essay all about the fact that they attended a normal high school, your essay shouldn’t be all about the fact that you didn’t.
This isn’t to say that you can’t mention being homeschooled in your essay or interview, however. In fact, it’s important that you do; the nature of your education provides context for your accomplishments in high school, and it has undeniably shaped your experiences in many ways.
You can think of it like this: communicating the fact that you were homeschooled is like giving an admissions committee a pair of corrective glasses. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to understand or interpret your application clearly, but by itself, it’s purposeless. What’s the point of glasses if there’s not anything interesting to look at?
Establish a Support Network
Needless to say, college applications season is a stressful and trying time. One of the things that makes it bearable is being able to reach out to friends, families, teachers, and coaches for support. Unfortunately, homeschooled students often don’t have the same access to people and resources that traditional students do, unless they are a part of a co-op or other homeschooled student support network.
Make an effort to connect with students your age in your extracurricular activities, or through community activities like church or cultural groups. Knowing that someone is going through what you’re going through can make the entire process of applying less terrifying – not to mention it’s always therapeutic to gripe about a needlessly confusing essay question or offensively early application deadline.
In addition, don’t be afraid to reach out to your parents, coaches, tutors, professors, or any other trusted adults for counsel. They’ve probably been in your shoes at some point, and even if they’re not sending in their applications alongside you, they have had the privilege of watching you develop and grow throughout high school. The college application process has a tendency to beat people down, and support and a new perspective from those who know you best can keep you confident and focused on your goals, even if they seem out of reach at times. If you’re feeling stressed about admissions, you can also check out our Zen Blog, designed to showcase the human side of the admissions process without the stress.
Applying to college is tough, but there’s no reason you should have to figure everything out on your own. Hopefully, armed with this guide, the process seems a little less daunting. The most essential thing to remember is that though you may be different from most applicants, you are in no way inferior just because you’re homeschooled. If you can demonstrate to colleges that your coursework was just as rigorous and your extracurriculars just as well-developed as the traditional applicant, you have nothing to fear. Make the most of the opportunities being homeschooled offers you, be confident in your ability, and you can – and will – get through your college applications season alive.
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