How Can Homeschoolers Apply to College?

“Can homeschoolers apply to college?” I homeschooled for almost two decades. Often when someone found out we homeschooled, they had questions about higher level academics like calculus and advanced Latin. Sometimes they asked how our kids could apply to college There were also questions about social activities like prom, but since I had two not great prom experiences, this seemed a less compelling concern. Some people went so far as to assume that homeschoolers can’t go to college. Others knew of homeschoolers who attended high profile colleges. They wondered if homeschooling could be a college admissions hook.

The reality is somewhere between these two extremes. Homeschoolers can go to college (and often do). Homeschooling often supports deep educational explorations that are highly attractive to selective colleges. But homeschooling itself is not a silver bullet in college admissions. Colleges are willing to consider homeschool applications, but still need enough information to make an admissions decision. While public and private school students get transcripts from their high school, homeschool families usually need to create the documentation that supports their student’s applications.

This article will give an overview of college admissions for homeschoolers. I’m drawing on my experience with my own three sons as well as homeschooled students I’ve worked with. I’ve also had many conversations with college admissions representatives as a co-chair of the Homeschool Affinity Group of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

What Do Colleges Consider When They Review Applications?

There is no checklist that will guarantee admission to a student’s first choice college.

Factors considered in admissions vary from school to school, because different colleges have different institutional priorities. A public flagship may prioritize educating students from that state. One private college may do a deep holistic review of applications, while another looks mainly at grades and test scores. But we can talk in general about what colleges consider.

For decades, the most important factors have related to academic performance in high school. They usually look at grades in the context of the courses taken, along with standardized test scores. This means that the rigor of the course load matters as well as the grades earned. Colleges may also look for demonstrated ability in courses related to an intended major.

A potential engineer should start college ready to take calculus, chemistry, and physics, which is often demonstrated by having taken those courses in high school. A political science major would want to have a strong record in history, government, and economics and would benefit by demonstrating strong writing and foreign language ability. Students are sometimes surprised by the need for advanced math. Both computer science and business programs often require calculus for college freshmen and prefer students who are ready for this level of math.

Colleges don’t simply rank applicants by GPA and test score, then admit them in rank order. A second set of factors goes beyond academic readiness to consider other qualities the student possesses. A college might require essays, letters of recommendations, extracurricular activities (including family responsibilities and work), portfolios and interviews to learn more about the student’s personality, interests, and life experience. They might use class rank to provide more context to the GPA.  Dance and music majors, film production majors, and arts students may need to submit sample work or do auditions. Students interested in nursing may need volunteer experience in health care settings. Some colleges track the student’s demonstrated interest in the college. Most colleges also consider financial need as part of their admissions review process.

What Should Homeschoolers Include in College Applications?

The biggest difference for homeschoolers is that they have to provide documentation that would otherwise come from a high school. At a minimum a homeschooler needs a high school transcript that lists all courses taken with a course grade and the year they took the course.  Many colleges specifically ask for course descriptions that offer more detail about course content, textbooks used, and assessment method. 

The parent may also want to submit the counselor recommendation and a school profile. A school profile helps to explain the how and why of homeschooling, offers information on grading policies (grading scale, how outside courses were assigned credit), and briefly describes any educational partners like online curriculum providers. Think of this as a document that explains the student’s educational setting. On the other hand, a counselor recommendation describes the student’s strengths and personal traits. This recommendation describes who the student is and why they would be a great addition to the college community. Some families worry that college will immediately discount a counselor recommendation written by a family member. Most college admissions reps I’ve asked say they appreciate the context the counselor letter gives, even when written by a homeschool parent.

Many colleges ask for letters of recommendation from teachers and other individuals, and these should come from someone who is not a family member. If possible, teacher recommendations should comment on academic preparation and ability to work as part of a group of students. Sources of recommendations include coop teachers, tutors, academic team coaches (robotics, Science Olympiad, Model UN), or dual enrollment instructors. Some online course instructors will happily write letters of recommendation. If the student had no outside academic coursework, look for other adults who know the student well, like coaches, employers, clergy, or mentors. Usually, a college application specifies what type of recommendations a college accepts, but it’s worth contacting admissions to ask if you have questions. Sometimes they will accept additional letters for homeschoolers, but may ask to have them sent directly to the admissions office if they are outside the categories the application requires.

Can Homeschoolers Apply Test Optional?

Test scores tend to carry additional weight for homeschool applications, because it’s data that colleges find easy to understand. Homeschool students don’t have a class rank that compares them to hundreds of fellow students. Some colleges hesitate over homeschool grades and don’t have time to read applications holistically. Scores from the SAT or ACT can reassure a college that a student is ready for college work.

Test optional admissions are when a college considers an application complete without SAT or ACT test scores, but will consider scores if they are submitted. Some colleges have been test optional for many years, but the coronavirus pandemic forced most US colleges to allow test optional applications in 2020 and 2021. Some cheerfully extended this option to homeschoolers, but other colleges continued to require homeschoolers to submit scores. You may also see different policies around test score requirements for college scholarships.

Outside tests in specific content areas can also fill this role. National Latin Exam, AMC math tests, or Advanced Placement exams are a few examples of content specific tests. Performance in academic extracurriculars like Science Olympiad, Model United Nations, Poetry Out Loud, or History Day competitions might serve a similar role. Some colleges used to require the SAT Subject Tests for homeschoolers, but College Board eliminated those tests in 2021. If you see Subject Tests listed as an admissions requirement, reach out to that college for clarification.

What Additional Requirements Do Colleges Have for Homeschoolers?

Some colleges ask for specific additional material from homeschoolers. A few examples:

  • Arizona State University requires an evaluation form describing a complete lab for each lab science course on the transcript.  
  • Bard College requires a “full syllabus” for any course from a non-accredited school and also an analytic paper written by the student.
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville requires homeschoolers to fill out a Homeschool Transcript Template (which counts as one of the more frustrating documents I’ve tried to complete).

Some college websites refer to homeschool agencies, umbrella organizations, or private school satellites. This may reflect state law or common practice where the college is located. If the requirements don’t reflect what is required in your state, contact the admissions office directly. Some will accept other documentation while others are not at all flexible.

These requirements might be clearly stated on the admissions website, show up in the fine print on an application, or be buried in the college catalog. The best practice for students and homeschool parents is to search for homeschool requirements at each college they are considering. I recommend doing this in the early days of list formation. If a college insists on requirements that you can’t meet, such as an official final transcript from a local public school or extensive college coursework as a high school student, it’s best to know that when you have time to apply elsewhere.

Homeschoolers Do Go to College

Every year homeschoolers are accepted to colleges and universities around the US. In most cases the days of having to convince admissions that homeschooling is a valid and legal educational choice are well behind us. In addition, homeschoolers are usually eligible for need-based grants and merit-based scholarships from colleges as well as many outside scholarship competitions.

That said, colleges that are highly selective – those that receive far more applications than they can admit will be looking for evidence of academic readiness as well as indications that a student is one that will be an engaged member of the campus community.

Homeschooling itself is not a stumbling block to college admissions, but it is also not a silver bullet. Homeschool students still need to meet admissions requirements. They should be ready to provide information that the college can use to make an admissions decision. And like all students, they should build a college list that includes schools with medium and high chances of admission, not just colleges with low admissions rates.

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