Now and again, GSHE asks our members to share their experiences and expertise with us so more families can be encouraged and potentially benefit from their shared wisdom and guidance.
Cristina Drondoe recently graduated her daughter who is now heading to a great college after 11 years of homeschooling. We asked Cristina to share her experience navigating the college application process as it can be an arduous journey for both parent and student. We greatly appreciate her sharing this with GSHE and our community.
For more information about preparing for college, look at the resources and information on our High School & Beyond page. It includes information about dual credit, admission testing, AP classes and exams, transcripts, financial aid, and more.
It feels like yesterday that we were conducting science experiments in my kitchen, writing Haiku poems, and reciting Latin conjugations. 11 years of homeschooling later, my older one is headed off to college. She applied to 10 colleges and was admitted to 9 with various levels of merit scholarships and financial support. She had a strong application with a rigorous set of courses, including 9 APs, 3 dual enrollment courses, strong SAT scores, internships, volunteering, and leadership roles. The colleges she was accepted to had acceptance rates ranging from 70% all the way down to 8%. She ended up choosing Wellesley College - a small, historically women’s liberal arts college, which offers a rigorous education, small class sizes, and a path to a master’s degree she’s interested in.
Having reached the end of our homeschooling and college application journey, we are looking back and can attest to the fact that homeschooling was the best gift we could give to her! And at the end of this journey, I am happy to come here as yet another parent who can confidently tell everyone who’s homeschooling through high school with college in mind: you can totally do it!
When Michelle Levell asked me to put together a set of tips for the college application process, I happily agreed; I do know a lot more now than I did just about a year ago.
First of all, a little disclosure: some of these tips are reflective of our own experience and approach to preparing for college. Just as every homeschooling journey is different, each path to college is also unique and tailored to your own child!
Building a College List
When we were crafting our college list, our general philosophy was centered around finding an array of colleges that we genuinely loved, and that my daughter would thrive in both academically and socially. The process was long and ever-evolving, but it resulted in a set of institutions that we were confident and excited about. Below are some tips for creating your college list with your child:
- Allow the Fiske Guide to live on your coffee table this year! Many times we would cook dinner and have a fun, read-aloud Fiske guide reading and conversation session.
- Location - urban, suburban, or rural schools? How far from home? Talk to your student about this aspect - it’s probably the first thing you will address when considering colleges. Visit as many schools as you can over the summer and early fall.
- Size of school - What kind of environment does your child envision when they think of college? What kind of campus makes them feel at home? Would they prefer to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Do research opportunities with graduate institutions matter to them? How much guidance from professors and advisors are they hoping for? Do they prefer lecture-based classes or discussion-based classes? Based on how your student feels about these questions as they navigate the college search, you may find that they naturally gravitate to larger or smaller size schools.
- Distribution requirements - Some schools, especially liberal arts colleges, require all their students to take a certain number of courses across disciplines as part of their distribution requirements. This allows them to explore different subjects and areas of thinking before declaring a major. However, if your student seems to dislike this idea, there are colleges out there that have absolutely no distribution requirements and you may want to encourage your student to include some of these colleges on their list.
- Academic offerings - For students who have strong interest in a particular major or field of study, looking for strong programs with courses, professors, and opportunities related to that field is important. If your student would love to be able to craft their own major instead of choosing one from a predetermined list, there are colleges that offer that as well. Students who are undecided may prefer liberal arts colleges that encourage academic exploration during the first couple of years.
- SAT - Although this is optional at many schools, it is generally recommended for homeschoolers, especially if they are applying to colleges with lower acceptance rates. The best recommendation here is to have your child go through as many SAT practice tests as possible. There are YouTube channels out there that walk you through each and every one of the 10 tests available and they are incredibly helpful! For colleges with low acceptance rates, SAT and AP Scores matter a lot! Most schools publish their SAT range together with many other stats as part of their common data set, so make sure to check those out since they will give you an idea of where your child falls in relation to those ranges. However, keep in mind that you don’t have to submit the SAT to all colleges your child will apply to. As long as it is optional, they can choose whether or not to submit it.
- Homeschool Friendly Institutions - Look for colleges that are homeschool friendly! Some colleges have subsections under their college application section one their website that pertain to homeschool students. It’s a good sign and an indication that they are welcoming of homeschool students. Not all are, and then there are some that may require a bunch of additional documents from homeschoolers. To us, that was a red flag!
- Balance - Make sure to work with your child to build a well-balanced list that includes an array of reach, likely/target, and safety schools. This is probably one of the toughest jobs you’ll have as their advisor. My personal goal was to make sure that my kid liked all the colleges on her list, including the safety and/or targets. Our list shifted a lot, with colleges sometimes living there for a month or two only to be kicked out as we uncovered new aspects that helped her realize that they were not a good fit. If she didn’t see herself on the grounds of a college and/or didn’t like their program, I didn’t push for that school. We kept searching! We ended up choosing schools where she would not feel bad if she had to go there. These were schools where she knew that she could craft her own path as part of an Honors track or specific niche, specialized programs, which is what mattered to her. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you and your child are on the same page. When decisions come, getting into a school they dislike won’t feel like an achievement. Because of my effort to build this positive attitude around all of the colleges on our list, we were overjoyed for every single acceptance letter!
Spring of Junior Year / Summer before Senior Year
- College Essay - Encourage your child to start working on their personal essay, and potentially any supplemental essays some of their colleges may require. This is not an easy process; choosing and writing on a topic that allows your child to convey their authenticity and values in 650 words or less is not an easy feat. I highly recommend Ethan Sawyer, or the college essay guy, for learning more about different types of personal essays, various strategies to write supplemental essays, and tips and guidance on pretty much all aspects of college application. A lot of his resources are free and he also offers regular webinars on different interesting college application related topics.
- Plan for Senior Year - help your student design their senior year in such a manner that allows them to continue demonstrating academic rigor. College admission officers do not like to see that the students drop the ball in their senior year. It is also a good time to explore classes that pertain to your child’s future major, if they have one in mind, to solidify their interest and allow them to reflect their passion on their high school transcript.
- Recommendation Letters - Encourage your student to reach out to any teachers they would love recommendation letters from. You typically need two to three letters to apply to college. Teachers, particularly in online environments, tend to get a lot of requests and they may choose to honor them in the order in which they were received.
- Counselor Documents - As your child’s high school counselor, you can start working on the documents you will need to submit: the transcript, course description document, school profile, and your recommendation letter.
Fall of Senior Year
Just when you thought the summer was busy, fall kicks in with looming deadlines for both you, as a counselor, and your child. All of that piles on top of regular coursework. Brace yourself for a time of intense work and frantic scheduling. Believe me, it goes by fast and you’ll never enjoy the holidays as much!
Your student will put final touches on their personal essay, write all their supplemental essays for the colleges that require them, and complete their list of extracurricular activities and honors.
Colleges on their list will offer tours and an array of virtual events. It’s important that your student attends them. Additionally, colleges will reach out to your student via email if they opt for it using the College Board Student Search Service. It’s important that they open them, read through, and click on the links included. All this is part of “demonstrated interest,” which some colleges track as a way to gauge student interest in their offerings. You can determine whether a college considers demonstrated interest in their application evaluations by looking at the C7 section of a college’s common data set: a document they publish annually with information about their institution. These documents are helpful for understanding what colleges strongly value among applicants, such as their GPA, letters of recommendation, and in some cases, demonstrated interest.
Now that applications are in, the only thing left for your student is to schedule interviews with the colleges on their list that offer them. Preferably, advise them to start with colleges that are their safety schools so they can practice their interviewing skills, “take notes,” and build experience. That way, they will feel ready and confident by the time they have their interviews with the “reaches” on their list.
Be prepared to support your child no matter what the result is! This is when you will be happy you spent the time and effort to help them build a well thought-out and balanced list of colleges. Celebrate every acceptance, and consider any rejection as a “wasn’t meant to be” type of situation, and move on. If your student ends up on the waitlist at a college they really love, have them immediately accept their spot on the list and encourage them to consider following up to the admission office with a Letter of Continued Interest. In this letter, they can offer to submit additional supporting documentation - in the form of an essay, research project, or any achievement post-submission that may be assessed in their favor.
Extra Tips and Advice
One of the biggest things to internalize as a parent is that the admission process is something that’s totally outside of our control. Our journey starts with years of helping our kids discover their passions while choosing courses and activities that are a good fit, and culminates with these few months of crazy work and constant guidance leading up to the application submission. Once that’s done, you’ll feel overwhelmed with a mix of feelings: huge relief, a sense of pride and happiness, but also an unexplainable void and a lingering worry. At this point, there’s not much you can do anymore - and it’s a strange feeling for the homeschooling parent! We like being involved! We are hands-on parents! But the ball is out of your court, and the waiting begins!
We’ve seen this year so many kids with fantastic stats rejected from colleges. We have also seen kids with average stats accepted. If you and your child understand that what happens beyond the click of submission is a combination of merit and a lot of chance, with many parameters influencing the admission decision, such as institutional priorities, legacy, and yield protection, then you both will be better prepared to not take any potential rejections personally. Trust the process and know that your child will end up at the right college! Teach them to “Love the school that loves you back!”
Don’t fall for the name! If you happen to have a student who believes the only respectable and reputable higher ed institutions are the ones in the Ivy League pack, sit down and talk to them. That’s an outdated way to assess the quality of a higher ed institution! It is also a dangerous way, with the acceptance rates being in the 5% or less range for those schools, which translates into an even smaller figure after you factor in legacy, institutional priorities, and those who can pay their tuition in full! There are so many institutions out there that, despite not being labeled Ivies, offer excellent experiences in each and every way. Having an open discussion about this with your student will not only enlarge their horizon but also help them discover some fantastic schools! It will also spare some hard feelings if they end up applying to and being rejected from Ivy School institutions. Again, it goes back to building a balanced list of schools!
Bottom line - you are the most important adviser in your student’s life this year. Help them to stay true to themselves while allowing them the space to question everything. Do not make them apply to colleges they strongly dislike, but encourage them to look at schools that don’t show up on their radar! Be prepared to support them through the trials and tribulations of this grueling process in every way you can! Trust the process and have faith that they will end up at the right school, because they will!