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This is the final (and shortest!) installment of a four-part series on college counseling for homeschoolers. In this week’s talk I will focus strictly on items that are specific to homeschool applicants. For discussion of more universal topics like financial aid, the application timeline, and how to be a good candidate, please see my previous articles.

Part one covered what you should be doing and whenIn part two we discussed the different types of applications and what colleges are looking for. Part three included all you need to know about financial aid and testing.

UNSCHOOLING? WHAT’S THAT?

I mentioned previously but will do so again (in case you haven’t read the other article yet) that college admissions officers are becoming increasingly enamored with high-achieving homeschooled applicants. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that every single one I’ve talked to replies “What’s that?” when I ask them their opinion on unschooling.

I’ll tell you what this really means. Colleges don’t care anymore whether your son or daughter attended a traditional high school, public or private. They do still care that at least most of your child’s coursework and the resulting grades are standardized and verifiable through recognizable, accredited providers.

Some of my clients use community colleges for this purpose. Others focus heavily on taking online, approved AP courses. Still others attend individualized education centers (Fusion and Halstrom Academy come to mind here in Los Angeles). All of these options provide for more flexibility in both scheduling and program design, but the thing they have in common is that they are accredited, not parent facilitated. This is an extremely important reality to embrace if you want your child to be considered a candidate for college admission.

Another part of this same conversation is that what students take also matters, not just where. You may have heard of the “A-through-G requirements.” (Written: A-G.) All four-year colleges and universities want your child to have completed a certain amount of English, math, social studies, physical and biological science, foreign language, and fine or performing arts. Being a homeschooler doesn’t exempt one from these subject requirements.

In elementary and middle school, it’s fine (and even beneficial) to get creative and exploratory with classes. Nothing counts until high school, in terms of college admissions. But once students hit ninth grade, colleges expect these A-G requirements to form the basis of a student’s academic schedule.

For example, it is expected that a student complete four years of increasingly difficult English coursework that covers specific topics, which are considered generally important (expository composition, literary analysis, etc.). In math, Algebra II is the bare minimum for admission to most colleges and more is definitely better. Physical and biological sciences with labs are required. Most colleges require separate year-long courses U.S. History and World History & Geography, and at least one semester of U.S. Government/Poli Sci. You get the idea. Check out any college’s admissions webpage and you can find these requirements, and if you look at several colleges’ sites, you’ll start to see that it’s pretty uniform.

You may be surprised at how little leeway you have at this phase, since homeschooling up until now has been all about freedom and choice. You still get to decide where your children take these classes, but they do need to take them, and preferably through an accredited option.

And you also need to remember to submit standardized test scores, as required by each school. (For more information about testing in general and how it’s helpful for homeschoolers to demonstrate competency in core academic areas, please read Part 3 of this article series.)

STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES AND FINANCIAL AID

I made a huge mistake with my first homeschooling family with significant financial need. Before them, all of my homeschooled clients had income and asset levels that precluded them from receiving federal or state funds, so I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Then the mother of this family, who was very close to my heart, called in a panic one day. They weren’t going to be able to afford UCLA for their daughter because they didn’t submit their SAT/ACT/GED scores by the deadline, so all state aid had been revoked.

Submit test scores to the state aid commission…what? I’d worked in a school for 17 years and always had to submit the seniors’ GPA Verification Form to the state for financial aid eligibility, but I’d never heard of submitting an SAT score before.

I’ll take the pressure off by skipping to the end of the story. After tearful begging from the mother and a groveling mea culpa letter from me, UCLA decided to still give the daughter the Blue & Gold Opportunity Plan tuition waiver, even though it was supposed to be covered by her non-existent state financial aid package.

That was a huge relief and also a huge lesson. I’d been doing college admissions for so long and was used to having the answers to the questions my clients didn’t even know to ask, but this one gap in my knowledge almost kept a very bright young woman from being able to attend one of the best universities in the world, which she had gained admission to through her own hard work. Consequently, it’s my mission in life to make sure all homeschooling families know to check whether there is a similar test submission requirement in their own state, so they don’t miss out on big opportunities.

TRANSCRIPT

As both the “administrator” and “counselor” of your child’s “school,” you will be responsible for creating a professional-looking transcript to submit to colleges as part of the admissions package.

The actual format of a transcript is not difficult. You need to have the student’s information, all of the classes they’ve taken in high school (separated either by school year or content area), where each of those classes were taken, and the grades and credits assigned for each class.

Some parents (and traditional schools) use .5 to indicate a semester and 1 to indicate a full year. Others use 5 credits and 10 credits, respectively. Neither way is more right than the other. You’ll just need to have a legend on your transcript indicating what all of your various codes and symbols mean, and make sure you’re consistent throughout.

There are a ton of example transcripts online. Just Google it and you’ll find something you want to replicate.

And try to make the transcript look as professional as possible. There’s a subconscious psychological response to how professional or unprofessional your “official school materials” appear to the admissions committee. If your documents are sloppy or contain a lot of typos, it gives the impression that you, as the person in charge of your child’s education, aren’t really concerned with details or making sure things are done right. What does that say about the program you developed for your child? Or even the veracity of the claims you’re making?! These are nagging doubts that will inevitably arise in the back of the mind of the person reading your child’s application.

If your child took all of their high school classes through a single homeschooling program, the company may be able to provide a transcript (and program description) for you. That’s always a big relief! But if your son or daughter has attended multiple programs and/or had some parent-facilitated courses, you’ll need to put the information on one transcript yourself. Request copies of the grades and obtain course descriptions from all the different schools so you can combine them into one document. If there are any community college classes to report, you’ll need to include a copy of the actual cc transcript as part of your submission, not just add that info to your transcript.

If creating a transcript seems intimidating, you can contact homeschooling programs and they should be able to refer you to someone who will do it for a fee. And if that document seems overwhelming, you’re probably going to want to look for someone who can help you with the program description, as well.

PROGRAM DESCRIPTION

When a college applicant indicates they’re graduating from their neighborhood public high school (or magnet), admissions officers feel they can make some general assumptions. The school is probably accredited and is accountable to district and state oversight. It offers a comprehensive curriculum, probably at different levels of rigor (remedial, general, AP/Honors, etc.), and at least a minimal amount of extracurriculars (theater, music, sports, student government, and clubs).

If that student comes from a private school, the colleges all of a sudden want a “school profile” because even accredited private high schools vary widely in what they offer students and they sometimes have narrow or unique curricula. For example, I know a lot of young people who attend orthodox Jewish schools in Los Angeles. Half their day is spent studying the Torah and Hebrew and other aspects of their religion (almost none of which, besides the Hebrew, fulfills any A-G category for college admissions by the way) and relatively little time is spent on the subjects that public school students focus on almost exclusively. These schools provide the bare minimum in standard curriculum to be able to issue a diploma but that’s not what’s most important to them, it’s sort of just a technicality.

So the private school counselor has to provide a “school profile” when their students are applying to many colleges. The document talks about their range of offerings (academic and otherwise), grading scale, accreditation, rankings or API (academic performance index) score, and then any other information the counselor might like to include to make the school look better, like the colleges students generally matriculate to (if that list is impressive).

But even in the case of private schools, the colleges start with the assumption that these institutions have a history of issuing diplomas that meet state requirements or they wouldn’t be accredited, and since parents continue to drop big bucks for their children to attend, there must be some perception of quality within the community. Colleges like to hear the details, but they already ascribe a level of legitimacy to private schools.

Now enter homeschooling, which could mean the applicant’s education involved just about anything, right? Two parents listing “English 9” on a transcript could have facilitated that course in wildly different ways, and there is really no accountability or verification possible unless the coursework was done through an accredited and recognized program (which I discussed at length earlier). But if it’s a parent-facilitated course, English 9 could mean either reading and analyzing classic literature, utilizing proper MLA format, or merely work at the level of word finds and vocabulary matching. A course title on a transcript gives colleges almost no real information about what a homeschooled student has actually done.

Therefore, you’ll need to develop a program description. You will need to do this regardless of whether any of the classes your son or daughter took in high school were facilitated by you because they want to hear your philosophy on education. Why are you homeschooling? In your opinion, what is so important for your child to learn or experience that they couldn’t get in a more traditional setting? How did you, a person who is not a professional educator, ensure that your child was being challenged to their capacity in all the various subjects? How did you determine what classes they should take and from what sources? How did you grade their work? How did you determine whether their work reflected their best effort and also, how did you try to correlate their performance with standard performance for their grade level?  You get the idea. This first part is really about you because you are the embodiment of the institution in this case.

You’ll also need to include very detailed descriptions of any classes you facilitated or that were taken through an unaccredited school/enrichment program. They want to know every reading and writing assignment and every project, and the reason those things were included in that particular course (e.g “learning outcomes”). One way to make this part easier on yourself is to find course descriptions from your local high school and adapt them to fit your situation, or in the case of enrichment programs, they can sometimes (though not always) give you the information you need.

As you can see, this is not a last-minute project. Ideally you will be compiling the transcript and program description throughout your child’s time in high school and not waiting until college application season.

Some parents squeak in just before the deadline with their part of the documentation, even though their child may have been really on the ball and submitted their part of the application early. You do not only yourself but also your child a great disservice this way because the colleges won’t look at their application until all parts are received. If your son or daughter submitted on October 1st but you don’t get the program description in until December 30th, that’s three months’ worth of other students being admitted to the freshman class while your child’s application sits off to the side in the “hold” pile, one step away from hitting the trash can for being incomplete.

The good news is that you don’t have to provide course descriptions for classes taken through established, accredited programs. If a student takes “APUSH” (AP U.S. History) through a recognized online school, you need only list it on the transcript. Classes taken at community college? Just listed on the transcript (and a copy of that cc’s transcript attached).

That makes two ways accredited classes are beneficial: Higher credibility with the colleges, and less work for you!

Colleges realize that this is all new to you so they try to be flexible and compassionate in their evaluation of your materials. Some people have graphic design experience and create visually stunning presentations about their child and their educational philosophy, but that’s not really necessary. What’s important is to be thorough, so you’re answering all the possible questions they might have about your program without having to get in contact with you. Never, ever waste their time. College admissions officers are insanely overworked. Don’t reflect poorly on your child by being the high-maintenance parent! They might think your son or daughter will be a high-maintenance student, and that’s quite the opposite of what they’re looking for. (For more information about what they are looking for, read Part 2 of this series.) And be sure to edit your work and format it a way that’s easy to read. That’s all they ask.

Most importantly, remember to stay calm. Everything is going to work out. It may not turn out exactly how you wanted or expected, but it’s going to be fine. And help your child cultivate this mindset as well.

Crystal Hope Reed has been taking the drama out of college admissions since 2003. In addition to general admissions she also has extensive experience with homeschooled and special needs students. She works in the West Los Angeles area (or via phone, email, or Skype with students who live elsewhere). Contact her through her website: NoDramaCollegeCounseling.com.

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