Homeschooling for College Admission
Part 1: How We Did High School
By Roberta Van Vlack
As I write this I have two kids in college and two in high school, including a high school senior who is applying to colleges this year. None of them ever attended a brick-and-mortar school before going to college. Below are some thoughts on how to do high school as a homeschooler. These reflect my experiences; your mileage may vary, as they say. I will add that while we are not unschoolers, neither have we used a traditional approach to education. My philosophy of education largely mirrors the Charlotte Mason style with lots of living books, art, and nature, and no formal testing. In a follow-up, I will talk more specifically about the college application process.
High School Academics: What to Teach and How to Teach it
What to Teach
It is generally good to have some sort of plan of attack for high school before you begin. If your child plans to go to college or even might possibly some day decide they want to, you will want them to have the requisite classes under their belt. If you have an idea of where they might go, you can look at a few college websites and see what they require. I would say the summer before ninth grade is the time to do this. Things to look at in particular: if the college requires a foreign language and if so how many years; if they require lab sciences; and if they require standardized testing.
Typical college expectations are: four years each of English, Math, and History/Social Studies; three to four years of science with labs; two to three years of foreign language; five to eleven other courses (fine arts, PE, computers, etc.). That does not mean you need to do everything as discrete courses that fit these labels. What you will need to do is turn what you have done into language the colleges will understand. For instance, my children read an economics book at one point in high school and an American government one at another point. When creating their transcript, I lumped these together and called them a half year of civics.
You will want to keep as thorough records as you can along the way. You will be glad you did later when you have to create a transcript. It is surprisingly easy to forget what your kids have read and studied. You will likely find that you have quite a lot of “classes” that you have done over the years. I always found that my kids had way more than enough credits when I looked at everything they had done. Creating a transcript was mostly lumping things together and deciding what to call them and what year to assign them to (more on that next time).
How to Teach It
There is a big temptation for those of us who are less traditional to change methods as we get to high school. This is not necessary. We did outsource some classes—particularly foreign language—but for the most part we continued with what we had been doing. Again, you can find ways to put what you did in language a college will understand. One nice side benefit of outsourcing a class or two is that you will then have another teacher who has had your child and can write an academic recommendation when the time comes.
If you choose to outsource classes, there are a few ways you can go. You can use online classes, the local community colleges, or local in-person coops, classes, or tutors. We primarily used live, online classes. This was mostly due to our own circumstances and ability to juggle cars (or not). We found that all companies we used—and there were a lot of them—had decent platforms and that it was the teacher that mattered most. Really, we didn’t have any bad experiences with online classes.
We never used the local community colleges, but this is certainly an option many choose. If you are going to go this route, your child will start by taking an accuplacer test. Massachusetts community colleges should all have someone who works with homeschoolers to get them set up for the classes they will take. Sometimes dual enrollment money is available to help defray the costs. If you choose to make use of this option, they may ask for your approval letters so even if your child is 16 or older and you do not need to file an education plan with your town, you may want to continue to do so if you think your child will use dual enrollment. Alternatively,you can pay full price for community college classes out-of-pocket, and in that case you do not have to involve your local school.
You can also find local, in-person options like coops, classes, and tutors. Many coops allow homeschoolers to be dropped off for classes and don't require parent involvement, though this usually also means there is more of a fee involved. My oldest did Latin with a private tutor and his physics labs through a coop, but for the most part the options available to us just didn’t fit with what we wanted when we wanted it.
To sum up:
Ways to teach high school level classes:
- Teach them yourself, with or without a pre-packaged curriculum
- Pros: relatively cheap and you don’t have to go anywhere; you get time together; you know your child best; you can follow their interests
- Cons: there are probably things you don’t want to teach or feel you can’t teach; takes parental time and energy; you may want/need a break from each other
- Let your kid teach himself; get him books and other resources and let him at them
- Pros: again, relatively cheap and you don’t have to go anywhere; less parental time and energy needed; if done right, your child will take ownership and really know what he’s supposed to know; builds independent learning skills
- Cons: you need a motivated kid who will do what he’s supposed to
- Online classes
- Pros: Group setting may help in some subjects; you don’t have to leave home; develop relationships for teacher recommendations
- Cons: Money; not an in-person experience (though my kids often got to know their teacher and others in their live classes to some degree)
- Community college classes
- Pros: gives experience in a class setting; possible college credit which could save money in the long run, especially at MA colleges; develop relationships for teacher recommendations; some things are better in a group setting (labs, foreign language); exposure to a wider demographic
- Cons: there may be some cost involved; you may need to shuffle your child back and forth (but many community college classes are online too); you may be at the college’s mercy for scheduling
- Local classes
- Pros: group setting; possible teacher relationship for recommendation later; your child may make friends with other local homeschoolers
- Cons: some cost involved; you need to drive somewhere; quality may vary and things may or may not be taught as you would like
- Before 9th grade: Think about what you are aiming for and what you need to get there. Look at sample colleges to see what they require, especially how many years of foreign language and science as well as testing requirements. If your child will need accommodations to take college board tests, begin the process now.
- Fall of 10th grade: Take PSATs for the first time. Consider doing an elective AP subject this year (eg. computer science or art history). Is your child 16? If you are in Massachusetts, you no longer have to submit an education plan and evaluation for them but you may want to if a) they play sports at their public high school or b) they plan to take community college classes and you want dual enrollment funds.
- Fall of 11th grade: Take PSATs again.
- Winter/Spring of 11th grade: Take SATs or ACTs. Repeat as needed.
- Spring of 11th grade: Take AP tests if desired. (Remember you may have to register for AP tests in the fall before you plan to take them.)
- Late Summer/Fall of 12th grade: Begin FAFSA and college applications. Aim for an November 1 deadline for maximum financial aid. (More on this next time.)
- Spring of 12th grade: Take AP tests. Reply to schools. Send in final transcripts and scores.
As I write this (in fall 2021) the college testing world is in a time of flux. The SAT, which just a few years ago made the essay optional, will be dropping it altogether and SAT subject tests have also gone away. Many colleges are temporarily not requiring SATs or ACTs due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether these temporary changes will become permanent and whether anything will arise to take the place of SAT subject tests. When my oldest was applying in 2018, Ivy League and other high level schools required SAT subject tests.
Because my kids never took standardized tests before high school, I had them take the PSAT in both 10th and 11th grade. You register for these through a local school. They are usually offered in October. We found the local Catholic school very accommodating. I would contact their guidance department in early September, once they were back in session, to ask if they could accommodate my child. You register for the SATs and ACTs, which are usually taken for the first time in the winter or spring of 11th grade, online through the College Board. The tests are offered maybe nine times throughout the year. In these days of COVID, I would register early and often as some test sites have been cancelling sessions last minute as circumstances change.
I found that my kids, despite never having done standardized tests, were fairly well prepared. They did do a practice test or two ahead of time. After one practice test, I was able to see what was confusing to them and to explain what the questions were asking and how they should think about them. In my opinion, practice tests are the best preparation. We also found the test prep resources on Khan Academy very helpful. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in For the Children’s Sake speaks of the passports our society requires and that is how I think of these things. They are necessary obstacles but one should not allow them to absorb too much of one’s focus and energy.
Other tests are not necessarily required. It depends on the colleges (and again that all is in flux due to testing changes in 2020/2021). It can be helpful for homeschooled students to have a little more to show for themselves so if they can do an AP class or two that may help. It may also get them some college credit if they do well. We found that AP tests are not a good way to learn a subject. A lot of it is learning how to navigate the test itself. Taking a licensed AP class (anyone who uses the AP label has to be licensed by the College Board), online or in person, can be very useful. It is harder to prepare for these on your own because there are tricks and tips a licensed teacher will know. Less subjective subjects like computer science and calculus may be a little easier. Humanities tend to be very political or trendy in their choices of what is important and needs to be known. As of about two years ago AP registration deadlines moved to the fall. The tests themselves usually happen the first two weeks of May. You will need to find a local school to accommodate you on this. Often Christian and/or private schools are easier to work with. We found a little Christian school that would even do tests just for my child if it wasn’t a class they offered. Public schools will often let your child join if it is a test they are already offering.
Your child may also want to consider CLEP tests which, depending on the school, can be used to get college credit and may save you tuition dollars in the long run. AHEM recently published a very helpful article on CLEP tests and how to navigate them by a young former homeschooler.
High School Timetable
To sum up, I’ll give you my timetable for thinking about and preparing for college. Again, these are my experiences and the way I have chosen to go about things. Above all, I would say that, though it is hard, try to relax and enjoy these years with your kids. They are some of the most interesting because you have mature(ish) people who can discuss real issues with you. Again, the things we need to do to get college-ready are passports; they are not the whole journey.