How to Prep for College When Homeschooling

Valorie Delp
Student studying

Staring down the college admissions process as a homeschooler can be very daunting. While traditional schools offer guidance counselors to help guide students through the process, homeschoolers have to figure things out as they go and rely on the advice of other families who have been there and done that. By planning early and staying organized, you can make the process as painless as possible for you and your student.

Building the Homeschooler's High School Resume

While most freshman are just trying to figure out high school, it's best for the homeschooler to start prep work for college at this point. While that doesn't mean that your student will commit to a certain major or school, planning a course of study and required testing that best suits your student helps ensure that he doesn't have to spend his junior and senior year trying to cram in extra requirements a college might have.

How to Decide What to Teach

Some states actually lay out what is required for a high school student. However, other states don't or have very loose requirements. If you live in a state that doesn't have requirements or doesn't delineate what you should teach during high school, there are a few resources you can use to help you know that you are on par with other students.

  • Check your local high school's graduation requirements. Your student should get, at minimum, a comparable course of study. The minimum required course of study is probably most appropriate for a student applying to a college that is not really selective.
  • Homeschool Success, a website dedicated to providing information for homeschoolers navigating the college admissions process, offers a great chart on which courses to teach. The chart is organized by how selective the college you might be applying to is, and it gives examples of what you might need.
  • The College Board also gives a list of classes that are strongly suggested for college-bound students. They note that many colleges look for:
    • Four years of English
    • Three years of math and science
    • Two and a half years of social studies
    • Two years of the same foreign language
    • At least one semester of fine or visual arts classes (This could include art, performing, music, etc.)

As early as possible in your child's high school career, it's a good idea to look at the requirements for colleges you may be interested in applying to. This will ensure that you won't be scrambling to fulfill requirements later. Jessica Parnell from Bridgeway Academy says that parents should not be afraid to start navigating the college process early.

Extra Curricular Activities

According to Parnell, extra curricular activities can really help your homeschooler stand out. She says, "Give them opportunities to take learning further than just academics. Volunteer, conduct large research studies that can be shared online, start a business, help a local candidate with their campaign, seek ways to serve locally and abroad, and take advantage of leadership opportunities as often as possible." Homeschooling often allows students the time to pursue interests more deeply because they do not have the same kind of schedule that their traditionally-schooled peers have.

When seeking opportunities, the best place to begin is with your child's passions and talents. Don't just seek out academic competitions; seek out great learning opportunities. When it comes to extra curricular activities, don't be afraid to focus on a passion. Things that are a little off the beaten path, such as a research project, an internship or even a unique job, help you stand out to admissions officers.

Rigorous Coursework

Common wisdom suggests that you take on the most rigorous coursework you are capable of handling that is accessible to you. For some homeschoolers, this might mean online AP classes. For others, it might mean community college. However, homeschoolers should not feel like they have to take all AP classes to be considered for college. The key is to do what you can handle reasonably well.

Homeschoolers and the Application Process

When compared to traditional students, sometimes homeschoolers can feel inadequate. However, Parnell tells students to, "Be confident in who you are." She says that homeschoolers often tend to think they haven't 'done as much' as their traditionally schooled peers. She notes, "Nothing can be further from the truth. In many instances, you have experienced more, tackled more, and achieved more than your traditional school counterparts." Approach interviews and college tours with this in mind.

Campus Visit and Interview

The campus visit is especially crucial for homeschoolers. Of course you want to see the campus, but it's especially advantageous for the homeschooler to arrange a meeting with people in his intended major, if at all possible. That meeting or interview can help the professors at your intended college understand what it is you've been doing with your high school career as a homeschooler.

Additionally, it's a great time for students to get to know their admissions counselor. While homeschoolers don't have a guidance counselor, they can ask their admissions counselor many of the same questions that pertain to that college.

Take Required Tests

Most colleges want to see your SAT or ACT scores. In addition, homeschoolers may use AP or SAT subject tests to validate any learning done at home. Early in your high school career, you'll want to make a timeline of these tests so you know what's coming up when. Other tests you may take include:

  • PSAT - The PSAT is a sort of pre-SAT. For homeschoolers, it can be used as a practice test to help gauge which skills still need work. It's also the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, so if your student scores well enough, he can potentially get money for college. Take it your 10th grade year to practice, but the PSAT score in your 11th grade year counts towards potentially qualifying for scholarships. Homeschoolers must arrange to the take the PSAT with a local school by calling that school and asking permission. Generally, the school does not have to accommodate you. (Tip: Private schools are often very accommodating to homeschoolers. If you have trouble arranging the meeting with your local public school, try a local private school instead.)
  • SAT or ACT - To decide which test to take, see what the college of your choice prefers. Many colleges will take both, and so then it comes down to preference and which test you feel you'll do better on. The SAT and ACT are given at varying testing centers (usually local high schools), and you will register online. Any testing center must accommodate you as long as you are properly registered.
  • AP Tests - AP tests offer a great way for the homeschooler to add credibility to a homemade transcript. For example, if your four years of English were spent reading great works of literature and discussing them, that may not impress a college admissions counselor too much. However, if that description is backed up by a 5 on the AP English Literature exam, it validates the coursework you did and helps college officials tell how rigorous the material was. In addition, you do not have to take an AP class to take an AP exam (although prepping with suggested materials is not a bad idea). To find an AP exam, you can call your local school and ask. You can also contact the college board through the AP website to find a school that will allow your student to sit for the AP exam. (Tip: Depending on the college, AP tests can sometimes be used for college credit.)
  • SAT II Subject Tests - SAT II subject tests can also help validate learning that you did. While AP is typically seen as more rigorous, SAT II tests still give a picture of what you accomplished. These tests are also arranged through the College Board website.

Apply to the Colleges of Your Choice

Many homeschoolers may choose to apply directly through the school (either online or in paper) because parts of the Common App do not accommodate the unique situations of homeschoolers well. However, it's important to note that this is not always an option. Some schools only accept the common app, in which case a homeschooler has to format his or her coursework accordingly. In addition to the actual application, you will also be required to send to the college:

  • A complete transcript - This should include all the coursework done in high school, materials used, and an explanation of how the work was evaluated.
  • Scores - This should include scores from any tests that you've taken like the SAT or ACT, AP exams, etc.
  • A school profile - This is a statement or letter that explains the philosophy of your homeschool. Use it to address things like your philosophy of education, how coursework was assigned, how it was evaluated, and what the overall homeschool experience was like for your student. (This is a parent-completed component.)
  • A counselor letter - This letter is used to describe your child, as a student. It's important that homeschool parents stick to the facts. However, it is also a great place to address issues in your transcript. For example, if your student spent his entire senior year as a foreign exchange student and did not take a lab science, it'd be appropriate to describe that in brief in this letter.
  • Letters of recommendation - Parents should never, under any circumstances, write their child's letter of recommendation. These letters must come from elsewhere, preferably from teachers who have had your child in an academic setting.
  • Any other supporting materials specific to the college or program - These could include audition videos, portfolios, additional test scores, etc.

What to Include in Essays

For your college essay, talk up your homeschooling experience; that's what makes you unique and helps you stand out from other students. In addition, discussing how your educational experience helped prepare you better for college really helps you make the case for why you could do well at that school. Parnell also notes that homeschoolers would do well to do the optional essays. "Just as extra credit work is the easiest way for a student to improve his or her grade, optional questions on a college application offer one of the easiest ways to get noticed by an admissions committee."

How to Build Your Transcript

For the homeschooler, it's the parent that should build the transcript, although the student may help add detail. Consequently, it's important to begin your record keeping as soon as your student begins taking high school level classes. This may well be in 7th or 8th grade.

Records to Keep

There are 10,000 different ways to keep records. While some families may have their records kept by their curriculum publisher, it is also acceptable to keep a simple journal, create a template in a spreadsheet, or use a homeschool record keeper such as The Homeschooler's High School Journal. Regardless of your method, there are a few things you'll want to keep note of:

  • All books read
  • All courses studied; including the materials/textbooks used
  • Hours spent in a course of study or the credit you plan to award
  • Extracurriculars
  • Field Trips
  • Achievements
  • Volunteering
  • Test scores and outside grades given

It's a good idea to keep track of these things both by year and activity. So for example, by the end of your child's high school career, you'd have a list of all the books he or she read and which year she read them. This is ideal because it gives you all the information you could need for developing your transcripts.

Awarding Credits

How to award credits is often a tricky proposition. No matter how you decide to award credits, it's important that you explain it clearly on the transcript. While there are no hard and fast rules about awarding credits, the following tips can help you decide what's right for your family.

  • Local standard - Before you award credits, find out what the common standard is in your area. In some parts of the United States a full-year course is equivalent to one credit. In other places, credits are awarded differently. For example, California students earn 10 local units for a full year course. Consequently, award credits based on your local standard.
  • One textbook/course per credit - If you use curriculum for a particular subject, it's acceptable to award one credit for a full year course.
  • Hours spent - For classes that are more atypical or self-designed, it's ideal to keep track of hours spent as a way to award credit. Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) states that, typically, 120-180 hours of instructional time is one credit of coursework.

Whatever you do, make it your goal to be as transparent as possible. You want admissions officers to look at your child's transcript and clearly see how you awarded credits and grades.

Deciding What Counts as Credit

Since many homeschoolers self-design courses, homeschooling parents must wrestle with deciding what counts as credit and what counts as extra curricular activity. To help you decide whether to list something as a full, bonafide course, consider these questions:

  • Is it something my local high school would offer for credit? You can consider it similarly if they do.
  • Is it academic in nature? If your child spends time researching global warming trends and then does a commercial or project on it, you could consider that a course. If your child spends 18 hours a week at ballet class, that might be a less credit-worthy class.
  • Does it seem to fit somewhere more easily? There is nothing wrong with putting academic interests in the extracurricular slot on a college application. After all, science olympiad, chess team, and a slew of other activities are all academic in nature and extracurricular.

Whatever you do end up doing, make sure that it's clear how the credit was awarded and why you counted it as a credit.

Mommy Grades

Grades are another issue homeschoolers have to deal with on transcripts. Parnell notes that it's important for students not to show up with a 4.0 accompanied by poor performance on standardized tests like SATs. Some parents avoid giving grades to home-study courses while other parents go ahead and give grades with a clear definition of how the class was graded. Regardless, the gold rule is to make sure that your grades are clear to an admissions officer.

Also, ask the college you're applying to what they'd prefer to see. Bring your sample transcript on a college visit and ask the admissions office if it makes sense to them. In the end, that is what really matters.

How to Write Your Transcripts

The key to writing a good transcript is to make sure it is clear. There is no single 'right' way to do one, and how you do yours depends on your homeschooling philosophy and how the college that you apply to allows you to submit your transcript. Generally, you will want to include the following information for each course you take.

  • Name, address and other contact information
  • The name of your homeschool
  • Course title
  • Brief description of the course
  • Textbooks and materials used
  • Projects completed
  • Relevant test scores (For example, if the course is chemistry and your child took the SAT II Chemistry course, that'd be relevant.)
  • Grade given (if applicable), and a brief explanation of how the grades were earned
  • Applicable test scores
  • Credit earned (and how the credit was earned if it isn't otherwise clear)
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Areas of your child's interests and where that he led him - accomplishments, awards, leadership, travel

Organize your transcript by grade level or by subject.

Examples of Transcripts

There are several styles of transcripts out there. Choose the one that best fits your style of homeschooling.

  • Houghton College - Houghton College, a Christian, liberal arts college in New York, offers an example of what they'd like to see. This is a great way for an eclectic homeschooler to organize a transcript by year. It's also a good example of a narrative transcript.
  • Donna Young - Donna Young's sample transcript is very easy to follow. It's ideal for students who have taken a very traditional approach to high school and can easily divide their high school time into four years of coursework.
  • The Home Scholar - The Home Scholar's example transcript is organized by subject. This offers a great way to make a very traditional-looking transcript out of courses that may have spanned a couple years.

Explaining Your Homeschool to Colleges

Part of your application package will include a school profile letter and a guidance counselor letter. It is appropriate for the parent to write both of these letters, keeping in mind that neither is a recommendation letter.

School Profile Letter

Your school profile letter is a required part of your application package which is typically sent in conjunction with the transcript. Its purpose is to give the college a bit of information about how your homeschool is structured. Your school profile can include a variety of information, and there isn't a wrong way to create one. However, you do want to include some basic information to help the admissions people understand a bit about your homeschool.

  • Basic Information: Include your address, the name of your homeschool, demographics for your area, and other basic identifying information.
  • Mission Statement: Include a brief mission statement that is not more than a few sentences. Something along the lines of, "The mission of Cherry Street Homeschool Academy is to provide a rigorous education equivalent to or better than our local public high school."
  • State Homeschooling Laws: It is appropriate to link to or reference your state homeschooling laws and briefly mention that you are compliant with them.
  • Homeschooling Philosophy: While you don't want to write a lengthy essay on all your thoughts on education, a brief paragraph or two that explains your philosophy and the structure of your homeschool is key to helping admissions folks understand what the school experience was like for your student.

School Counselor Letter

If your student's application requires a school counselor letter (and many do), you'll need to write that as well. This is where you'll want to talk about your student and what her homeschooling is like. Make a point to address:

  • Strengths - It's important to keep the tone professional, but you do want to talk about your child's strengths. Is there something he pursued during high school with passion? Talk about that and how that makes him a good candidate for college.
  • Weaknesses - It's okay to discuss weaknesses in your child's transcript. Colleges know their applicants are not perfect and being forthcoming can help them understand whether your child is a good fit.
  • Homeschool perceptions - Anticipate and address concerns you think an admissions officer might have. Talk about social skills, the rigor of your at-home study courses, why you did or didn't do community college, etc.
  • How your child fits - Conclude your letter with a brief statement as to how and why you feel like your child is a good fit for the school.

Keep in mind that this letter would normally come from a school guidance counselor, so the tone should be professional and as unbiased as possible.

Homeschoolers Do Get Into College

Of course the burning question homeschooling families want to know is do homeschoolers really have a shot at college? Can they get into highly selective schools? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes.

Colleges That Admit Homeschoolers

Learn in Freedom offers a list of selective colleges that have accepted homeschoolers. Schools on that list include names like Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Pepperdine, Stanford and MIT. To find out if the college you're interested in accepts homeschoolers, and more specifically, what they'd like to see from homeschoolers, it's best to look on their website or give them a call.

Beware of Extra Requirements

Some colleges ask for additional testing, essays, or courses to be taken by homeschooled students to help validate transcripts. For example, Bryn Mawr College asks for homeschooled students to supply a research paper (with evaluator's comments) in addition to an essay on why the student or family chose homeschooling. They also require an interview. The University of Washington requires validating test scores for any core coursework you did at home.

It's best to look at colleges early on during your student's high school years so that if there are extra requirements, the student is aware of them and can complete them.

Make a Plan

The biggest thing you can do to help prepare your student for the college admissions process is to make a plan early in his high school career. Keep good records so you don't have to spend hours creating a transcript when he is a senior. Make sure you plan for tests like the SAT or AP tests so that your student doesn't have to cram them all into three short months at the end of his high school career. Include AP classes, outside classes for enrichment, volunteer activities and other options in your plans. With good planning and record keeping, there's no reason why your student cannot get into college when the time comes.

How to Prep for College When Homeschooling