As a homeschooled freshman or sophomore, college may feel like an abstract concept that’s light years away, something you don’t have to worry about for a long time—until you do. Before you know it, here you are, a junior or senior faced with the daunting task of searching for and applying to colleges.
This process can be extra challenging for homeschooled students and their families: you and your parents/teachers will have to take the initiative regarding standardized test prep and transcript writing, and it will take a lot of work to get all your applications sent in by their deadlines. But if you set certain assignments for yourself, stick to a well-planned schedule, and keep focused on your goals, you’ll find that you can manage everything the college application process throws at you.
Application season will take up most of a homeschooled student’s fall and even part of spring semester of senior year. However, you should start planning for college well before then—as early as your sophomore year of high school. Here’s what you need to know about tackling the college search and application process as a homeschooler.
The importance of standardized testing
Early in your sophomore year, you’ll need to consider standardized testing and decide whether to take the ACT or SAT. Standardized tests are unfortunately a large part of what will be considered on your application, though there are a select few colleges that do not require ACT or SAT scores. However, the vast majority do, and your scores on one of these tests will determine such important factors as likelihood of admission and merit scholarship eligibility.
It’s a good idea to purchase an ACT or SAT test prep book and make it one of your semester’s courses to prepare for the exam, which is optimally taken during your junior year. I personally used The Princeton Review’s ACT prep book for two years (and took the ACT four times), and that helped me more than I would have ever imagined to get the score I was targeting. These handy test prep books will also help you reach your goal scores, which will in turn help you get into the college to which you’re aspiring.
How to search for and organize your colleges
What if you don’t know which colleges you want to apply to? No worries—convenient college search sites such as CollegeXpress can help you find the college or university that is right for you. You can input a myriad of variables such as location/proximity, selectivity, and tuition cost that will allow you to pinpoint the colleges that are the best fit for you.
Once you’ve decided on a few colleges—I’d recommend choosing several with a range of different characteristics to broaden your options—check their websites or the Common Application for what their application requirements are. The Common App is an aggregate application system that puts all your applications together in a convenient, single location, which will help keep separate applications from overwhelming you. What’s more, the website compiles each college’s deadlines, requirements, and statistics for you, giving you the ability to compare and contrast different colleges and make a better decision on where you want to apply. Most colleges accept the Common App, and so I would recommend using it to mitigate the overwhelming nature of having several applications to work on.
Don’t forget about the FAFSA…or scholarship opportunities
Early on in application season—October 1, to be exact—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be available to be filed. This application, along with the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, is useful and in fact required to be filed every year to receive financial aid during college. Each application is available online and should be completed with a parent to accurately represent all income and tax data. Colleges often have their own individualized financial aid documents as well, which you will have to fill out and send in to complete your financial aid application, but they are typically only one or two pages long.
Later on in application season, you can search for merit scholarships for each college, though you may automatically be awarded certain ones depending on your academic scores and grades. Also be aware of local scholarships available to you, such as agricultural scholarships for students who live in a rural area and are interested in that field, as well as awards just for homeschooled students. Keep an eye out early and often for scholarships that you’re eligible for!
Essays, essays, and more essays
Admission essays are one of the biggest parts of college applications, so it’s a good idea to start working on them early. More selective colleges require shorter, supplemental essays on various topics such as your academic interests or how you spent the last summer, but the most widely used and important essay is the personal essay, the one that goes to all colleges and stands out amongst all the other requirements. Spend a good deal of time perfecting this, because it is one of the most integral parts of your application and is your chance to prove to the admission committee why you would make a difference and stand out in their college. The more unique your essay is, the better, and don’t hesitate to display your own voice and add a little humor.
Don’t underestimate good character
Another component of your application that will display your strengths and character (which admission staff value nearly as highly as academic prowess) is the letter of recommendation. You will want to gather at least two academic letters of recommendation; one or two from non-academic authorities such as sports coaches, music teachers, or youth group leaders; and one from your counselor/parent.
Letters of recommendation, particularly academic ones, are especially important for homeschooled students to demonstrate your fortes and talents if you’ve had classroom experiences outside of homeschool. If you’ve taken dual enrollment courses at a local college, for example, then you can ask a professor from a college class you’ve taken to write you a recommendation, which will be especially beneficial to your application. Taking dual credit courses is an invaluable experience, particularly for homeschooled students, which will show admission officers you are ready for college-level work and can integrate yourself into the collegiate atmosphere—while also fulfilling both high school and college required courses in one stroke (one semester of a college course counts as a year’s worth of that subject in high school).
The necessary high school transcript
Another necessary element of your application required by all colleges is the high school transcript. Starting at the beginning of high school, it’s a good idea to keep detailed records on your courses, textbooks, and science labs and then compile them in your transcript, along with your grades and a signature from your teacher/parent. AGPA is highly important to colleges, so you’ll want your document to plainly and officially state it. Online templates are available for free to create a neat transcript that will fully reflect your course load in an official manner.
Some colleges also give you the chance to include a résumé in your application, and though this is optional, it is probably a good idea to include for those who have many extracurricular activities or volunteer/work experiences that will flesh out their application. The résumé gives you a chance to show what your interests and strengths are outside the classroom, and you can find a template for it online as well, or even on some word processing programs.
A homeschooler’s bibliography
There’s one extra component to the application that certain colleges ask of their homeschooled applicants: a bibliography detailing each course you’ve taken throughout high school, course descriptions, and all textbooks and materials used in those courses. It’s best to lay this document out in chronological order by each year of high school with the most important classes like English and math first in each grade. Though your transcript also lists these courses, the bibliography gives detailed descriptions about each one to ensure that high school requirements have been met in your curriculum.
Each state requires a different number of credits for graduation, and each college has their own requirements for subjects and their courses, but the more rigorous colleges will most likely want you to take four years of English; four years of math; four years of a single foreign language (this is your chance to show off how hard you’ve worked on those French conjugations); and three to four years of science, with at least two including laboratory experiences.
In addition, the bibliography will most likely need to include examples of those science labs in the form of lab reports—sort of like a portfolio—so you should scan and add in a few lab reports that display your knowledge of a variety of scientific experiments.
Interviews: be professional, but be yourself
After sending in your applications, some colleges recommend or may contact you to request an admission interview. Whether evaluative (typically the case for highly selective colleges) or not, an interview with an alumnus or current student of the school is useful to round out your application by giving the admission staff better insight into your character, interests, and goals for the future. If the interview is with a student, you can often complete it at the same time you’re taking a college tour (another step in the application process that, though optional, I’d highly recommend. It can help ensure that the college campus and atmosphere fits you, and that you fit in as well).
Interview questions can range from a description of your family life to what research projects you’d like to participate in during college and anything in between. Speaking from personal experience, college interviews can be nerve wracking at first, but they will quickly become easier for you as you get used to them. Just keep a cool head, prepare some answers in advance for common questions (but don’t sound scripted), maintain eye contact with your interviewer, speak clearly, and dress sharply. The most important thing to remember is to be yourself. That’s what the admission staff is looking for: a student who is honest, passionate, intelligent, and true to him or herself.
A final (inspirational) note
For homeschooled students, application season may be an overwhelming and incredibly busy time. But if you keep your deadlines, assignments, and requirements organized with help from the Common App or a planner and just take them one day at a time, soon enough you will see checkmarks next to those applications, and then you’ll be on your way to achieving your goals in college and beyond.
College is a worthwhile endeavor that will provide you with meaningful experiences you’ll take with you the rest of your life. All those time-consuming applications will be completely worth it as soon as you receive that acceptance letter to the college of your dreams.