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This is the first article in a 4-part series. Please be on the lookout for future parts to get answers to such questions as What’s on a college application? What are colleges looking for? What’s up with standardized testing? How do we get financial aid? and What are some college admissions tips specifically for homeschoolers? 

College Admissions for Homeschoolers 101

College admissions has changed so much over the past few decades. Not only is the system entirely online now, which is different than most college-educated parents would have experienced, but families from all over the country and from all walks of life seem confused and stressed out about the criteria colleges are using to select candidates these days. Add to that the specifics that apply only to homeschoolers (there aren’t that many, don’t worry), and it’s understandable that students and parents are sometimes paralyzed with anxiety.

I chose my business name, “No Drama College Counseling,” because it was important for me to convey to clients that it’s possible to navigate this process with much less stress than the media and their neighbors often suggest. Through this series of articles, I’m going to give you some basics—College Admissions 101—to hopefully help start alleviating any worry you may have.

FIRST OF ALL, DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE

This is of primary importance. Don’t believe the hype that you’ll hear from other parents and students about how this process is so difficult or scary, or how a kid needs to get into a top-rated university or their life is over, or any of that. People around you will be spinning themselves out of control and all you can do is be polite and block it out. All of this only distracts and it’s not based on fact, just emotion and “negative fantasy.”

Another type of hype to disregard is bragging from other parents or students. “My son will be going to Stanford,” etc. Unless they’ve been accepted and put down the deposit, that is really just posturing. Recognize it for what it is. Students do this to each other a lot. I have clients in 11th grade who are freaked out because “all of my classmates are going to Ivy Leagues and I can’t get in.” Guess what? NOT all of their classmates are going to Ivy Leagues. In fact, maybe none of them are. They haven’t even applied yet let alone heard whether they’ve been accepted and made that commitment. Posturing. Don’t get tricked into participating in this time waster and anxiety builder.

I had a mother of an 11-year old boy call me last week, already panicked that because he didn’t get into their first choice of private middle school here in L.A., his whole life was already ruined. Now this wasn’t an upper-class, Harvard legacy family or anything like that, but just an “ordinary” middle-class family who wants the best for their son and is too susceptible to the hype of other parents who make nonsensical, provocative statements.

I explained at length to the mother that middle school is a social-emotional transitional period, and grades and activities don’t even count toward a college application until 9th grade (for some colleges, 10th grade) and that she would be better served figuring out which middle school was RIGHT for her son instead of which one was top-ranked by some source that doesn’t know her kid at all.

As homeschooling families, I know you already understand this piece of the puzzle in relation to K-12: It’s about fit for your unique child, period. And I want you to keep that in mind during the college admissions process, too. In the same way you didn’t acquiesce to someone saying that some standardized solution should be right for your child because it’s right for others, I want you to remember that the “best” college is the one where your child will experience success and growth at a pace appropriate for them, and all other measures are practically worthless. 

But timeline is important, so I’m going to give you some guidelines here to make sure you’re on track.

WHAT SHOULD YOU BE DOING AND WHEN? 

Middle School:  As I just mentioned, focus here should be on getting your child through the potentially most difficult period of their lives in one piece. Their bodies will change. Their social development will be tremendous. They will experience a whole new level of peer pressure. They will “individuate,” which means they will finally realize they’re not just an extension of the family unit but an autonomous individual, and they will inevitably make their own life, and yours, unnecessarily difficult while figuring out how to be this new person.

These developmental issues are the most important things you can focus on during middle school. If they go off the rails here, high school will be about catching up and putting things back together, and then college options will become limited. Focus on academics should be about developing improved study habits, an age-appropriate sense of personal responsibility, and helping them adjust by encouraging their interests in productive ways. Positive activities will give them structure and will set the foundation for participation in high school, which does count toward college admissions.

9th grade: A high school transcript will always include grades from 9th grade because some of the required courses for college eligibility might be taken this year. Therefore, even though some colleges might not figure the grades from freshman year into their GPA (every college has the prerogative to calculate GPA however they want), they’re going to see what the student was doing academically. Make sure you’re challenging your child to the greatest extent possible for their ability level. Colleges want to see good grades but also rigor. (In a future article I will discuss what colleges are looking for.)

In this grade, focus on making the successful transition to high school (whatever that means in your context), and start emphasizing to your child that they’re actively building their college-application resume through their grades and extracurricular activities. As always, aim for presenting them with opportunities to do the most they can, but never expecting more than is reasonable for them as an individual.

10th grade: In public school, many students take the PSAT in 10th grade. Search your local area to see whether your son or daughter can participate at the school site, or whether there are test-prep companies that offer it for free to the general public. (This is more common than you might imagine.) The results are an indicator of your child’s likelihood of scoring well on the real SAT toward the end of 11th grade, without formalized study or prep but with another year of grade-appropriate academic instruction. Don’t place too much emphasis on the test either before or after because that kind of pressure is counterproductive, but do make mental notes. How comfortable did your child seem with the testing protocol? Did they score better or worse than you expected, based on their academic performance in related subjects? Does it seem like they ran out of time on each section and would have done better with the “accommodation” (discussed in a later article) of 50% more time? Honest reflection on these questions should inform some changes you might need to make to your homeschooling program in order to optimize your child’s chances for success in this area. (I will also discuss testing more in a later article.)

Aside from the PSAT, focus should be on students continuing to push themselves academically and outside of the classroom. At this point, a young person who is on track to be ready to handle college in a few years should be doing their schoolwork with very few reminders and little parental oversight. (If they need tutoring it should come from another source.) They should be able to handle most of their daily tasks independently, including keeping track of their own schedules, organizing their own materials, and knowing how to find answers to things instead of always asking their parents. Lack of autonomous functioning is one of the biggest impediments to college success with this current generation. Be sure you use every opportunity to encourage their independence, even if they have to struggle through something a little to figure it out at first. This will serve them well in higher education and the adult world.

11th grade: Time to start getting serious about college! Applications open in August of the summer between junior and senior year, so schools will primarily be using grades and activities through 11th grade to make their admissions decision. That makes this the most important year of all.

Students should register for the SAT or ACT for the end of this school year (so they can take it again in early fall if they’re not satisfied with their scores).

Since applications open during the summer, that also means you need to spend 11th grade figuring out which colleges to apply to. Don’t wait until the summer. The whole school year needs to be spent researching and visiting colleges of interest.

By this stage, the student should be taking charge of a lot of their process. If a parent is having to do all the research, schedule all the tours, offer all the options for discussion, your child might be showing that they aren’t really on track for the “full college experience” right after high school. This is a good indicator that you should be considering colleges close to home, possibly even close enough that they can commute instead of living on campus freshman year.

Kids coming home from a university after a year, semester, or even month is very common these days because young people on average are not as ready to handle all of their business independently 24/7 with no adult supervision as people in the past few generations were. This isn’t their own faults, it’s a societal shift. But parents need to be very, very attuned to whether complete freedom and autonomy are the right choice for their 18-year-old or whether that’s going to be problematic in some way, and then guide the exploration of acceptable options accordingly.

12th grade: Applications open online in August. There are a few exceptions around the country but very, very few. This means that your son or daughter needs to figure out how to integrate application completion into their schedule during an already busy year. Colleges will see their senior grades mid-year and then again at the end of the school year, to ensure they haven’t slacked off. That means maintaining a high GPA is still important, but application deadlines are firm and impersonal so they need to be able to handle this increasing workload and pressure to get everything done.

I say “they” very pointedly, because your young adult child needs to be doing the applications. DO NOT fill out their applications. Except for essays, it’s just a bunch of data entry of stuff they already know about themselves! (I’ll cover applications in detail in the next article in the series.) DO NOT write their essays. An essay should be an accurate reflection of their actual writing ability so they don’t get into a school that expects work that’s over their heads.

The senior needs to be driving this bus. You, their college counselor, their tutor, all of us adults—we are passengers on that bus and will shout out directions if it seems like they’re getting lost. But they are driving.

“But what if they refuse to do their applications?” you might ask. That does happen occasionally. And what it means is that person is not ready to go away to college. They may need a gap year, or some time at the local community college. They’re stepping hard on the brakes for a reason. Don’t ignore or bypass that very strong signal they’re giving you.

Sometimes once they realize the parent won’t do the application they get working and everything is fine (but even that degree of age-inappropriate manipulation is something to take note of). But if you lay down a firm line of “This is your college experience. If you don’t do the application to any particular school, it just means you won’t get a chance to go to that school” and they still refuse to do anything, listen to the message they’re sending. They probably know deep down that the plans you’ve developed together are overreaching for them and they want to step it back a little.

Often the reality hits them that in 12 months or less they’re going to be off to college, living away from their family, with all strangers and no adult supervision. Maybe they just know that’s not such a great idea for them yet and you need to respect that.

If they’re powering through the applications (with some grumbling or even some occasional crying), that’s great! This demonstrates an age-appropriate level of independent functioning that speaks well of their chances for handling the huge transition to college in one year.

The thing you will need to fill out is the financial aid application. I’ll go into more detail in a future article but just know that during the fall of your child’s senior year, if you want to be considered for any financial aid, you will need to submit the paperwork online at that time.

I tell students to have all their apps finished up by Thanksgiving but the truth is that most colleges have deadlines from between the middle of December to the middle of January. (Heard of “rolling admissions” or “early decision” and wondering what those terms actually mean? Check out the next installment of this series for answers.)

Second semester of senior year brings acceptance and rejection letters, but also senior activities like planning for graduation, attending prom (when possible), and perhaps most importantly—dealing with the terrifying realization that soon you will leave the safety of your high school identity and be expected to function as an adult out in the world. In college, Mom can’t advocate for you with the school anymore. Dad might pay the tuition bill but he can’t call and chew out one of your teachers for treating you poorly. (He can, but it will just make things way worse.)  Once you turn 18, all legal liability falls on you. You can be tried as an adult. You can sign contracts (and get yourself into a lot of trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing). Kids get this, and as high school comes to an end, most of them start to panic a little. And this is happening at the same time that they’re receiving offers from colleges and have to decide whether they are indeed ready to do the full adult thing or want to slow it down a little.

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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