Homeschooling for College Admission
Part 2: Applying to College
By Roberta Van Vlack
Last time I talked about how we homeschool high school. This information is based on my experiences. Practices can change rapidly so you should always check with the College Board and the schools you are applying to for updates. There are many pieces to the college application process. Today we will look at: applying for financial aid, creating transcripts, recommendations and school profiles, the student's part of the application, and lastly a few words on choosing schools to apply to.
Almost all schools use the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This is mainly about parents’ finances and can be complicated if you have multiple checking/retirement/college accounts. It is usually available online in October. Some schools also require the College Board’s financial form which isn’t much better; check the College Board site on this. With my oldest, I found out late that some schools wanted this extra form from me. The deadline for merit aid for many schools is 11/1 so aim to get all applications and financial documents in by then.
Transcripts and Course Summaries
As the homeschooling parent, you also get to function as guidance counselor. There may be slight differences among colleges in terms of what they ask for but generally you will need to provide: a transcript, course summaries (optional), a school profile, and a counselor recommendation letter. Many colleges today use the common application, or less often the coalition application, which allows you to enter all this information once and have it sent to participating schools.
A transcript is a one-page document that lists the courses your child has taken and their grades. There is a fairly standard format for these and it is best to not be too creative. You want schools to be able to quickly look at your transcript and understand what it is communicating. You can format your own. I used a program that did it for me for about $20/year (only one year is necessary). Such a program will also calculate the GPA for you. It seemed well worth the cost.
A traditional transcript lists courses by year, eg. all the ninth grade courses in one section, 10th grade in the next, and so on. Some homeschoolers choose to group courses by subject — eg. all social science courses together then all science, all math, etc. Some colleges are fine with this, but I do know one parent who was asked for a more traditional transcript when she tried this.
The usual practice for high school is to assign full-year courses one credit and half year courses a half credit. There are some alternative ways to figure credits. Colleges themselves tend to use a different system that considers hours of in-class time. In general, I think it is always good to use the most common, familiar system. Even more important, however, is just to be consistent and to explain how you calculated credits. This can be done in your school profile (see below).
In general you can assume that one standard, year-long course—eg. algebra or ninth grade English—is one credit. Other subjects that you have spent less time on, perhaps Shakespeare or art appreciation, might be a half credit. Generally you want to aim for 22-26 credits. If you are unsure of how much a course is worth, you might consider the hours spent on the material. A one-credit (=full-year) course in the public schools usually requires somewhere between 120 and 150 hours of work. But—and this is a big but—homeschooling is more efficient than public schooling so some homeschoolers will consider 100 hours of work a one-credit class.
As homeschoolers our courses did not always fit the standard categories. As noted in Part 1, I looked back at what we had done and grouped things together. For instance, we did a little art appreciation/art history each year. When it came time to make my children’s transcripts, I looked back at all we had done and made a determination about whether they did enough to call it a half-credit or one-credit class. If a course spanned multiple years, I just assigned it to a year. I tried to make the years fairly even so there would not be 3 credits in one year and 8 in another.
While my kids had a few classes that they had done with outside providers and had grades for, I had never given them grades so I assigned grades retroactively as I made the transcripts. Basically, I just thought back over the work they had given me. Had they done all the required work and done it diligently? That’s an A. If they didn’t quite get everything done or didn’t do their best work, that’s a B and so on. I used my school profile to explain my grading strategy.
There is usually a place on the transcript to add notes about particular classes. If your student did a high school level class before ninth grade, you can include it as an “early earned credit” (EEC). I also marked classes that were done with outside providers and noted which sciences had lab components. Be sure to indicate which classes are AP level even if your student didn’t take the exam but don’t use the AP label if it was not done with a licensed AP provider (the College Board strictly regulates the AP label).
There will be places in the application to list activities that your student has participated in. There may be some things that could be called a class or an outside activity. For example, my kids have done play reading with friends. This could be considered a drama class or a recreational activity/club. You can choose which category these go in but be sure to only use them once. It can’t be both a class and an activity.
The common app allows you to upload a few transcripts. If you have transcripts from outside providers, you can use one of these slots for them (you may want to combine them into one document). If you choose, you can also use one of these slots to upload course summaries. None of the colleges my kids applied to specifically asked for them, but I had heard they might so I created and uploaded them proactively. While this is more work, it is also an extra way to show what your student has done and give some idea of how your homeschool works. I created one document that listed all my children’s classes by school year and included details about the books they read or topics which were covered.
Recommendation Letters and School Profile
As the guidance counselor, you will provide one recommendation for your student. You will likely need one or two others, one of which must come from an academic instructor (this is where it is useful to have had at least one outside class). I acknowledged up front in my counselor letter that I was the homeschooling parent and just tried to be honest about my child’s particular strengths. This is also a good place to explain any extenuating circumstances like learning disabilities.
Typically a school profile is a standardized document the guidance counselor uploads that is the same for all the students in a school. It would provide demographic information for the area and statistics on how many of its students take AP classes, etc. As homeschoolers, our school profiles will look a little different. I found this was a good opportunity to explain a little bit about our philosophy of education. I also listed our graduation requirements, educational partners (i.e. any outside companies we used), and grading system. For the graduation requirements, I provided a chart showing how many years I had required in each major subject area (ELA, science, math, etc.). I made this up retroactively but it is roughly similar to the state’s requirements.
The common application includes a small section in the counselor portion specifically for homeschoolers. I repeated information on philosophy and grading from my school profile here. They will have places to enter class rank and the like. I just always checked “not applicable” or “we do not calculate class rank.”
The Student’s Portion of the Application
For the student’s portion, your child will have to provide personal and demographic information. Though not all schools will require all parts of the application, most likely your student will also have to write an essay. There are so many choices for the main essay that they can really write on anything and make it fit one of the categories given. Some schools will require extra essays and some scholarships may require them as well. The common application essay will go to multiple schools, but if a given school requires an extra essay, try to gear it to that school specifically. Almost all schools will require at least one recommendation. For homeschoolers, some specify that recommendations must come from academic teachers not related to the student (this is where having had some outside classes helps). They all ask about activities and awards. Some schools will require or strongly encourage an interview for homeschoolers.
Testing is optional at many schools these days. As I discussed in Part 1, my kids never did standardized tests until high school but with minimal prep they did just fine on the SATs. It is probably worth having your child try the SATs or ACTs. You can always choose not to submit the scores. Many schools also “super score” which means they look at the best score for each section. So even if your child did better on reading/writing at one sitting and math at another, this will not count against him. Elite colleges (think the Ivies, Duke, etc.) may also want extra tests. If you are aiming for one of these schools, check their websites early and plan ahead to get in all the courses and tests needed. See Part 1 for my schedule for planning and testing in high school.
Where Should He Apply? and Will He Get In?
In general, homeschooler or not, it is good to cast a wide net by applying to a range of schools, some “safety” schools, some middle of the road options, and some reach schools. If your child has done SATs or ACTs, you can use their scores on those as a rough guide for which schools are within reach and which might be a stretch. (I have one child who did not do this—she had her heart set on one fairly competitive art school and only applied there. Fortunately, for the sanity of everyone in the house, she got in, but I don’t recommend this strategy for anyone with a heart condition.)
My impression is that most schools these days have gotten used to having homeschoolers apply. They know how to read a homeschool application. While you want to communicate as clearly as you can and to try to present information in ways that they will understand, you don’t need to worry too much about getting everything perfect. Your child likely has a lot of unique experiences and interests. Just present him honestly and let those qualities shine through.