It’s college application season, and we know it is more than possible for students educated outside of the public school system to get into great colleges and it’s worth examining what’s needed to make that happen. Those of us in alternative education are a resourceful bunch, and we know that there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or produce a well-rounded student). That’s a good thing, because it will take a little savvy to navigate the college application and acceptance process.
We should first point out that colleges each have their own guidelines and policies regarding homeschool and alternative education students. For this reason, the process of putting together application materials is a little more demanding for alternatively educated students, because they don’t have the same materials provided to them that public school students do. Some universities require extra paperwork and even extra test scores or reference letters; others don’t ask for anything more than what a “traditional” student would provide. As far as the baseline requirements for acceptance go, these vary by state and by school, but generally speaking students need:
• Three or four years of study in the core academic subjects (Math, English, Science, Social Science)
• At least two years of a foreign language
• Community service hours
• Activities or extracurriculars that indicate a special interest or ability in some area
(College Guide has a very informative list of thirty colleges and their application requirements for homeschooled students.)
So how do alternative education students (particularly homeschoolers) prove that they meet their dream college’s requirements? Where public school students have transcripts generated for them by their high schools, alt. ed. students are left to their own devices to compose a comprehensive record of their accomplishments. Some homeschoolers dual-enroll with public schools and graduate with a diploma and/or a transcript from that school. Many alternative schools (like Clonlara School) provide transcripts or some other kind of academic record for their students, whether they plan to go to college or not—these kinds of records are also required to apply for many jobs and volunteer opportunities.
Each school or family takes a different approach to this task, but it is widely accepted that the transcript or academic record should be as detailed as possible. In the “Tips for Home Schooled Students” section on its website, Princeton University states that “The more you can document for us and describe what you have done during your high school years, academically and otherwise, the better.” All academic work, extracurricular activities, professional pursuits, community service, tutoring, special projects, and any other activities that have contributed to the student’s learning should be included. One homeschooling mom kept track of all of the books her children read in the course of their high school home educations.
While homeschooled and alternative education students generally don’t run into any issues writing their essays that public school students wouldn’t, there is one other aspect of the college application that can present a special challenge: the reference letter. This isn’t too troublesome for students who go to alternative schools, but it can be a little tricky for homeschoolers, since their teachers are often their parents, and a parent’s letter could seem too biased. Collegeboard.com recommends asking “at least one unrelated adult who knows you well to write a recommendation — the leader of a club you are a member of, an employer or the manager of a volunteer program.” Coaches, tutors, outside instructors, orchestra conductors: these are all great people for writing reference letters.
Though public school students receive many supports from their schools during the college application process, alternatively-educated students are fully capable of putting together remarkable applications and getting into the country’s greatest universities.