“Being homeschooled isn’t enough to make you interesting anymore.”
This is what one college admissions officer shared with me during a recent phone interview, an interview I’d requested as part of my research for my first book about college admissions for homeschoolers. It certainly wasn’t a perspective I had expected to hear, but as a homeschooling mom of two boys (one of whom will likely be applying to college in a couple of years), it’s an insight into the college admissions process that I’m happy to know about.
And as it turns out, those in the college admissions field are willing to share lots of helpful insights about college admissions for non-traditional students like ours–we just have to ask. Again and again, whether through the national survey of admissions officers that I launched last year, or during the phone calls or in-person meetings I’m doing now, college admissions counselors and officers have shown a surprising willingness to answer all kinds of questions and provide truly helpful “behind the scenes” guidance and advice not available on their school’s website.
If you’ve read some of the other articles I’ve written, you may recall that college admissions for homeschoolers is a topic I’ve covered before. In the article “Three Inevitable Questions,” I described the three chief concerns that many admissions officers have when reviewing admissions applications from homeschoolers. The importance of demonstrating academic qualifications, along with the ability to understand different viewpoints and work with others, emerged from the 2015 national survey of admissions officers I mentioned earlier. As I’ve been following up with some of the survey respondents (and others) more recently, I’ve taken the opportunity to confirm these findings, and also to dig a little deeper in an attempt to uncover other insights we should know about and steps we can take to help our kids improve their chances of getting accepted into their top-choice schools.
So, if your homeschooled child is applying to college this year, or even if college applications are still a few years off, here are some additional questions they’re likely to face, and some suggestions worth considering.
Has this student challenged herself/himself academically?
At first glance, this may sound similar to the question about being academically qualified but, in speaking with admissions officers, it’s clearly a separate and additional concern for them. “Academically qualified” means “Can they do college-level work?”On the other hand, “Has this student challenged herself/himself academically?” questions a student’s level of motivation, their experience taking risks and pushing to their potential. “Rigor” is the word most often used, and AP and honors courses are the most frequently cited as examples of a rigorous education.
While taking online AP courses is already part of the plan for many college-bound homeschoolers, for others this path may be less appealing. So, what are some other ways to demonstrate “rigor” and show that your student is comfortable taking on academic challenges? It depends on what resources and options you have access to (something colleges take into account), and could include higher-level college classes taken at a community college, or independently-pursued interests that are backed up by solid ACT/SAT or SAT subject test scores. Although strong and enthusiastic letters of recommendation from tutors or mentors can also demonstrate that a student has challenged themselves, it’s also to your advantage to provide something quantifiable, especially if your child has his or her eye on some of the more competitive schools.
Has this student maximized her/his homeschooling opportunities?
The idea that “Being homeschooled isn’t enough to make you interesting anymore” is both good and bad news. Good, because it means our community is growing and becoming harder to overlook; bad, because it means a little more work will be required to truly stand out. These days, when admissions officers are looking at a homeschooled student’s application, they ask themselves, “Given the freedom and flexibility to pursue their interests, has this student made the most out of their opportunities?”
So how can your student make sure they stand out? “Engagement” is the term almost every admissions officer uses when describing what they’re looking for, with “evidence of inquiry” another. In other words, colleges want to know that a homeschooled applicant has not only explored different areas, but has also taken the opportunity to engage and inquire more deeply in into topics or questions in which they’re especially interested, and has done this in ways that often unavailable to traditional students. Internships, apprenticeships, guided research, conference participation, work with mentors, volunteering are just a few examples of the opportunities many of our children already take advantage of, so it’s important to highlight those during the admissions process. And if you’ve still got a few years before your child will be applying, look for opportunities to build experiences like these into your high school plan.
Does this student fit with the mission and culture of our school?
A key concern for any student, but homeschooled students get extra scrutiny on this. Because our students are still viewed with a bit of skepticism, especially when it comes to their social skills, admissions officers want to make sure that our students will integrate well with the students and faculty at their school. Colleges and programs that are known for having a rigorous, highly-structured curriculum, for example, want to make sure they’re admitting students who can adapt to this environment and have a strong chance of succeeding. Even if an applicant has a perfect SAT math score, s/he would still need to demonstrate experience working with groups, engaging effectively with peers and faculty in the classroom, taking tests, and meeting deadlines.
As parents, ensuring that our children attend a college or university where they’ll feel comfortable and find support in pursuing their goals is already on our list of priorities, so this isn’t really an extra thing on our “to do” list. What is important here is that our teenagers clearly communicate through their application that they have researched the school and the program they are applying to and can describe why they are a good fit. And here’s a related recommendation: demonstrating interest in the school even before applying is a very good idea, and another way to stand out. “Yield,” or the percentage of students who enroll when an offer of admissions is made, is a hot topic in the world of higher education these days (it’s going down at many schools), and admissions officers want to know that if they offer someone a spot, that person is likely to enroll. So, if your child has been following their school on Facebook or Twitter and engaging in some of the surveys admissions officers post, or they’ve visited the campus or talked to some of the current students (some schools share contact information of “student ambassadors” on their sites), your son or daughter may actually have an advantage over other similarly-qualified students.
Regardless of the type of college or university your child is targeting, these three questions, along with the first three posed in the earlier article, are important to keep in mind. It’s also important to remember, however, that just as all homeschooled students are not the same, neither are all colleges. State universities tend to be the most bureaucratic, and therefore generally less flexible in their requirements around standard (or standard-looking) transcripts, specific high school course requirements, and test scores. Selective colleges (Stanford and Brown, for example) often have a holistic review process, which means they’re frequently willing to look at additional admissions materials like extra letters of recommendation or portfolio submissions. (Of course, they’re still very difficult to get into!) And like the selective colleges, many smaller schools also offer holistic reviews, frequently with the added support of providing designated homeschool admissions counselors you can contact directly.
This is just the beginning. I have so much more great information I can hardly wait to share. Keep an eye out for more articles in the coming weeks about college admissions for homeschoolers, not to mention my upcoming GHF Press book. I’m also interested in hearing from you. Please feel free to send me a question or a comment through my website. I’m always happy to respond.
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 directing the career development program and serving as adjunct faculty member. Since 2010, she has been homeschooling her two sons, in addition to researching and writing about education and parenting issues. Lori is currently working on a book about college admissions for homeschoolers that will be published by GHF Press in 2017. You can find her at www.teachyourown.org.