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The Changing Face of College Admissions
From the Older Kids column, by Cafi Cohen, originally published in the January-February 1998 issue of Home Education Magazine.
Five to ten years ago, college admissions officers viewed homeschooled applicants as a novelty. I can picture them passing these applications around the office, commenting favorably on some, raising their eyebrows at others. The admissions personnel I interviewed back then said that they thoroughly reviewed all applications from homeschoolers. Many institutions went the extra mile, asking for extra documentation from those who submitted skimpy information. The objective: give the homeschooled applicant a fair hearing.
Of course, nothing stays the same. The novelty has worn off. Some colleges now see dozens of homeschooled applicants each year. We should not be surprised; we all know that homeschooling is growing.
While it is impossible to get an exact count of homeschooled kids in the United States, researchers' estimates confirm the impression of growth. Five to ten years ago, various investigators figured there were 500,000 to 1 million students in home-based education programs in the United States. Now the numbers range from 750,000 to 2 million.
Additionally, while ten years ago homeschooling primarily involved younger children, more families now homeschool teenagers. Peruse the workshop offerings at recent conferences. "Happily Homeschooling High School," "Terrific Teens," and "Decompression: Beginning Homeschooling With Older Students" are typical of topics seen frequently now, almost never ten years ago. Similarly, consider the explosion of diploma-granting, independent-study schools with nationwide enrollment. Ten years ago there were not more than five or six. Now, I count dozens.
Of course, this translates into more homeschoolers applying to college. How many? Last year (1996-1997), Grove City College, a selective institution in Pennsylvania, admitted 19 homeschoolers; ten years ago, they admitted none. Massachusetts Institute of Technology had four homeschooled applicants last year. Harvard University admissions personnel estimated they routinely see three to five homeschoolers apply each year.
In view of the increase in homeschooled applicants, some colleges and universities have responded with admissions guidelines and application evaluation procedures that apply only to homeschoolers. This is big news - for two reasons. First, the written policies - some good and some discriminatory - give homeschooled kids advance notice as to how their application will be viewed at various colleges. Second, homeschoolers, with guidelines in hand, can better plan their preparation to ensure a successful application.
College Admissions Policies For Homeschoolers
How can the written policies help you choose colleges? Picture Institution A requesting a transcript, complete with grades and a calculated grade point average, versus Institution B which simply requires descriptions of what you have done plus a reading list. If your homeschooling has been less structured, your kid might prefer the relaxed approach of Institution B, not only for the application, but also for the campus atmosphere.
What kinds of policies have selective colleges and universities written for evaluating homeschooled applicants? Many places - like Stanford in California, the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and Wheaton College in Illinois - try to be as specific and fair as possible, while remaining true to their overall mission. It is almost as if a homeschooler sat on the policy-writing committee.
Stanford, in their admissions letter for homeschoolers says: ".... we do not have a required curriculum or set of courses for applicants to Stanford.... Primarily, we want them to be able to demonstrate that they have successfully undertaken a serious, rigorous course of study. They should definitely provide a detailed description of their curriculum when they apply, but it is not necessary to follow a prescribed or approved homeschooling program.... the central issue for us is how they have gone about the learning process, not how many hurdles they have jumped."
Stanford's letter also says, "In all students, we look for a clear sense of the intellectual growth and quest for knowledge.... Homeschooled students may even have a potential advantage over others in this aspect of the application since they have consciously chosen and pursued an independent course of study. In particular we would like to hear from them.... about how the family chose homeschooling, now the learning was organized, what benefits.... they have derived from the experience."
Stanford is not alone in asking applicants why they chose home education. Many admissions officers, including those at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, Rice University in Texas, and Wesleyan University in Connecticut, expressed the same concern. They all wanted clear explanations why the family and the applicant chose a home-based program for grades nine to twelve. Prepare to answer this question!
Wheaton College in Illinois, a selective Christian school, sends out a complete packet for homeschooled applicants. It includes "Questions and Answers About Homeschooling and College," a suggested high school curriculum, a reading list, and a home schooling questionnaire. Like some of the institutions named above, one of the questions is: "What factors led to your decision to home school?" The packet is available free; call Wheaton College at 800 222-2419.
Other schools, like Southern Methodist University in Texas and Rhodes College in Tennessee currently have discriminatory policies, most notably in the area of standardized testing. They require more standardized test results from homeschoolers than from other applicants. Most commonly, these schools ask for results of additional SAT II Subject Tests (e.g. Biology, Writing, Spanish, American History, Geography).
While the discrimination against homeschooled applicants is unfair and unjustified, maybe we should be glad they are telling us, up front, exactly who they are and where they place their values. Knowing that, you can steer around them if you agree that assessing potential with extra standardized tests is unfair.
Using Policies To Plan High School Homeschooling
If you have your sights set on certain colleges, having the policies in hand can help you plan what to do and how to do it. Of course, there is always the danger of compromising learning today to please an admissions officer two to three years down the road. However, if the written policy fits in well with what you are doing today, why not cross all the T's and dot all the I's?
For example, the Air Force Academy's admissions letter for homeschoolers includes the following paragraph. "Home-schooled students compete against the same standards as students coming from a traditional school setting. In our admissions formula, academics account for 60 percent of the overall score. Extracurricular activities (both athletic and non-athletic) make up 20 percent with the remaining 20 percent coming from a combination of Admissions Liaison Officer interview and Selection Panel review. In the absence of graded coursework completed at a public or private high school, we place greater weight on the standardized ACT and SAT scores." The Air Force Academy's letter goes on to suggest ways that homeschooled applicants can satisfy both the academic and the extra-curricular requirements.
Those aiming for selective colleges and universities, as well as those seeking big scholarships to any school, should heed the advice of Stephen Farmer, Assistant Admissions Officer at the University of Virginia. He says that any applicant to a selective college (like UVA) will want to exceed the stated requirements. Why? Because all successful applicants - kids who attend school and homeschoolers alike - go far beyond "typical course of study."
Recognize that kids in home-based programs have an advantage here. Yes, homeschooling families can set the bar higher. More significantly, homeschooled teenagers have time to pursue topics in depth. They also can change the typical high school "course of study" format by doing unusual things. Examples are traveling, operating a business, studying arcane subjects like historic costume design, and pursuing unusual topics like animal husbandry or aircraft maintenance. The unusual often catches the eyes of admissions officers.
Of course, homeschoolers may also exceed requirements in more traditional ways. Several seem to work consistently. First, accumulate college credits during the high school years. For this purpose, check out correspondence courses, on-line courses, and local adult education and community college classes. Second, work on interesting community projects that will generate good letters of recommendation from people outside the family. And last, plan to take SAT II's (Achievement Tests) and AP (Advanced Placement) Tests, even when these tests are not mandatory.
Advice To Cope with Changing Policies
* Policies regarding evaluation and admission of homeschooled applicants are in a state of flux. Some college and universities have them, some do not, and some are in the process of writing them. It is even possible that something I have written here will outdate by the time this is printed. Given that, do not rely on what anyone outside of an admissions office tells you about the current policy at a given school. Last year's procedures may not apply this year. Get your own information from colleges and universities by telephoning, e-mailing, or writing to them.
* Homeschoolers, more than other applicants for college admissions, need the counsel of college admissions personnel. The recommendation of Stephen Farmer of the University of Virginia, is echoed nationwide: "They [homeschoolers seeking admission to competitive institutions] should seek this advice early, prior to the ninth grade year, if possible."
* Compare the admissions policies of several similar colleges and universities to find user-friendly schools. Institutions that appear comparable with respect to course offerings and size and other factors may require very different documentation. Colleges with bureaucratic applications or discriminatory policies towards homeschoolers send up a red flag. There are too many good places that welcome homeschooled applicants to focus on those that are actively discouraging. Their loss.
© 1998 Cafi Cohen
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