What Are ROTC Scholarships?

Ohio State University ROTC building entrance with signs for Military Science, Air Science, & Naval Science

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC, often pronounced ROT-see) is a program to educate and train future US military officers at civilian colleges and universities. Students are simultaneously full-time college students and ROTC cadets or midshipmen. They take courses in military, air, or naval science alongside their other college classes. They also have regular military training during the school year and over the summer to prepare them for their role as future military officers. ROTC scholarships pay for tuition and more at many colleges around the US.

Three ROTC Programs, Five Military Branches

There are three different ROTC programs. Army ROTC trains future Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard officers. Navy ROTC trains future Navy and Marine Corps officers, and has a special track for Navy Nursing. Air Force ROTC trains future Air Force officers and now offers some cadets the option of commissioning into the Space Force.

Host Units and Cross Town Agreements

Students can only participate in ROTC at colleges that host a ROTC unit for that program, or that are a cross town affiliate with the unit at another college. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Navy ROTC unit includes cross town students from Harvard and Tufts. Meanwhile, Air Force ROTC Det 60 at University of Southern California includes students from USC as well as students from two dozen nearby colleges including Embry-Riddle, Occidental, Cal State Polytechnic Pomona, and Chapman.

Make sure that there is a ROTC unit or cross-town agreement for the specific program you want to join. Students at Occidental for example could affiliate with the Army ROTC unit at UCLA or the Air Force ROTC unit at USC, but would not have a Navy ROTC option available.

It’s also important to remember that the high school scholarship applications are just that, an application for a ROTC program scholarship. Students still need to apply to – and be admitted to colleges where they’d like to use the scholarship.

ROTC Scholarships

ROTC Scholarships for High School Students

Each ROTC program has a scholarship competition for high school students. The application typically opens in spring of junior year, with scholarship review boards over the fall and winter. Because students might not hear the results of their scholarship application until spring of senior year, it’s essential to complete college applications without waiting for ROTC scholarship results.

The application typically requires an academic record, SAT/ACT test scores, teacher recommendations, activities list, essay responses, an interview, and a fitness assessment. Students must also go through a medical review board that determines medical qualification. Students are evaluated on their academic ability and potential as future military leaders.

Participation in high school Junior ROTC is not required, but is one of many ways a student might develop leadership skills. Other common venues of growing as a leader include team sports, scouts, Civil Air Patrol, Sea Cadets, student government, academic teams and clubs, and work.

ROTC Scholarships for College Students

College students can join a ROTC unit whether or not they have been awarded a 4-year scholarship. They would take the same ROTC courses and do the same school year training events, but usually don’t do summer training. Non-scholarship students may be considered for 3- or 2-year scholarships or a contract that results in a commission after graduation. Usually, success in earning a scholarship as a college student depends on college grades and performance as a ROTC cadet or midshipman.

ROTC Scholarship Benefits

ROTC scholarships pay for part or all of college tuition and required fees, depending on the program and scholarship category. Scholarships usually also include a book allowance, uniforms, and a monthly tax-free stipend.

Basic Eligibility

  • Be a US citizen
  • Be within age requirements
  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Meet fitness standards
  • Meet physical (medical) standards
  • Agree to accept a commission and serve in the respective branch of the military after graduation

How to Apply for ROTC Scholarships

The specific eligibility, application, and service requirements vary according to which ROTC program the student joins and what career path they are assigned after graduation. See each Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program page for current information.

Navy ROTC (Navy and Marine Corps)

Air Force ROTC (Air Force and Space Force)

Army ROTC (Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard)

Ohio State University Buckeye statute in a green flight suit.
Ohio State University Buckeye Statue

Should You Take the SAT or the ACT?

scientific calculator

Is it better to take the SAT or the ACT? Do some colleges prefer one test over the other? The ACT and SAT are two tests used by colleges to help determine if a student is ready for college level academics. They might also play a role in awarding financial aid that is based on academics rather than financial need. Many students ask if they need to take both tests to have their best chance in college admissions. To answer that, you need to know a little history, a little bit about how colleges use test scores, and a lot about your ability to get a strong test score.

SAT vs ACT

Historically the ACT was more popular in the Midwest, while the SAT was more common on the coasts. This has changed over the years and both tests are scheduled nationwide for weekend test dates. Students can register for either the SAT or the ACT using each tests online registration. (See the tables below for ACT and SAT test dates and registration deadlines.)

However, many high schools also administer either the ACT or the SAT during a school day. They use the test results to gather data on student achievement and school effectiveness. The test day administrations also give broader access to students who might not sign up for one of the tests on their own. But because each district or state chooses either the SAT or the ACT for school day testing, students might be less familiar with the other tests. This can lead them to wonder if they will have a disadvantage with colleges that might prefer one test over the other.

Decades ago, the SAT and ACT differed in how they measured college readiness. In the past 20 years, revisions to test format resulted in more similarities than differences. Both the ACT and SAT have timed sections that focus on specific academic areas. The ACT tests English skills like grammar and punctuation, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT has sections for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. The SAT does not have a specific Science section, but does include science related questions. They use these science related questions to generate a cross test Science score.

ACT Test Dates and Registration Deadlines

ACT Registration DeadlineLate Registration DeadlineACT Test Date
August 6August 20September 11, 2021
September 17October 1October 23, 2021
November 5November 19December 11, 2021
January 7January 21February 12, 2022
February 25March 11April 2, 2022
May 6May 20June 11, 2022
June 17June 24July 16, 2022*
*No test centers are scheduled in New York for the July ACT test date.

SAT Test Dates and Registration Deadlines

SAT Registration DeadlineLate Registration DeadlineSAT Test Date
July 30, 2021August 17, 2021August 28, 2021
September 3, 2021September 21, 2021October 2, 2021
October 8, 2021October 26, 2021November 6, 2021
November 4, 2021November 23, 2021December 4, 2021
February 11, 2022March 1, 2022March 12, 2022
April 8, 2022April 26, 2022May 7, 2022
May 5, 2022May 25, 2022June 4, 2022

Do Colleges Care Which Test Students Take?

The good news for students is that colleges will usually accept either test on an equal basis. Admissions officers understand that access to tests given in high schools varies. They use score concordance tables to compare ACT scores to SAT scores. They can also draw on years of experience to know what type of test score indicates readiness for success at their college. This means that students don’t have to decide if the SAT or ACT is better for a particular college, but if there is one test that is a better choice for them.

Complicating the question if a student should take the SAT or the ACT is a general lack of test availability due to Covid-19 restrictions. In some areas, tests have not been available for many months. The lack of test access in 2020 resulted in many colleges adopting test optional admissions policies. Some like University of California even chose to use test blind admissions, in which test scores are not considered during admissions review.

How Should Students Approach Testing?

Take a practice ACT and practice SAT test to see how you might do and if one test feels more comfortable. Try to take the practice all at one sitting to be as close as possible to an actual test day.

If your practice tests score near the range for admitted students at schools you are interested in, try to register for a test. Keep in mind that registration deadlines are about a month before the test. Also, it takes several weeks for scores to arrive, so tests taken after October of senior year might not be considered in early college applications.

If your scores don’t represent your academic performance in school, look into test optional or test blind admissions. FairTest keeps a list of colleges with test optional and test blind policies.

If tests are not available in your area, move on. Devote the time you might have spend on test practice to meaningful engagement in your activities.

In other words, it’s not just a question of if you should take the SAT or the ACT, but if test scores represent your abilities and what you would miss out on doing while concentrating on test practice.

How Many US Students Are Homeschooled?

girl in yellow jacket sitting beside man in blue long sleeves

Earlier this week, Gallup released their annual education satisfaction survey results, which includes a breakdown of where US K-12 students go to school. I’ve been watching for this survey, because it had interesting results in 2020 regarding where students in the US are educated. I have been waiting for this survey to post, because it includes a question about how many students are homeschooled.

2020 Jump in Homeschooling

Last year, this survey reported that 10% of US students were starting the 2020 school year as homeschool students, defined in the survey as “not enrolled in a formal school but taught at home.” This was over double the 4% figure from the 2019 survey.

This year, the numbers look similar to those from two years ago, with 4% again responding that their students are homeschooled and the percentage of families reporting public and private school enrollment looking very similar to 2019. It’s possible that the 2020 numbers represented an unusual moment in time.

I think the phrasing of the question is relatively clear, but it’s hard to know how someone on the phone received it: “Will your oldest child attend public, private, parochial, charter school – either in-person or remotely — or will they home school this year? By home school we mean not enrolled in a formal school, but taught at home.”

I know many families decided to try homeschooling for 2020-21, because the spring 2020 remote options didn’t work for their students. Local online homeschool groups had significant growth, and online curriculum providers had bumper crop enrollment and long waiting lists.

It’s also possible that some families might have responded that they were homeschooling, even if their students were doing remote school while enrolled in a public school. It’s hard to know if this year’s numbers represent a return to public schools, a better understanding of the question, or just a different slice of respondents. In addition, the survey occurred in early August, just as school districts were announcing fall mask policies.

Other Factors that Affect Homeschooling

Homeschooling is regulated on the state level and can reflect both local school quality and the level of homeschooling support networks, both formal and informal. The strength of library systems, homeschool support groups, sports opportunities for homeschoolers, local field trip options, and other factors can affect how many students homeschooled in an area. The survey doesn’t correlate the response to the school setting question to location, age of the oldest child, or other demographic qualities. For example, other reporting in 2020 suggested a significant rise in homeschooling among American Black families.

To further complicate this question, some states have charter schools that support home studies. Also, in recent years more online schools have pivoted to serving homeschoolers or moved from teaching specific content areas to homeschoolers to serving as broad curriculum, accredited online schools.

There is a US Census community survey that asks similar questions to the Gallup survey. It will be interesting to see if that also reports the 2020 homeschooling percentage as an outlier.

You can read the complete Gallup survey question responses and see trends over time here.

Space Force Training at the Air Force Academy

space shuttle launch during nighttime

The Space Force became the newest branch of the US military in 2019, and the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) commissions about 100 cadets as Space Force officers each year. This is around 10% of each graduating class. To prepare cadets for future Space Force roles, the Air Force Academy has added more Space Force officers to the staff, increased space oriented academic programs, and created summer training opportunities that expose cadets to life as a Space Force junior officer. The Space Policy Show recently devoted an episode to Space Force training at the Air Force Academy. I thought this was an excellent overview of what cadets experience. It should be of interest to students considering applying to the Air Force Academy.

Space Related Academics

There are several majors associated with space, including Astronautical Engineering and Space Operations. However, cadets in any major can also complete the Space Warfighting minor. There are four different tracks within the minor: Operator, Intel, Digital, and Acquisition. Each track has several required courses plus related electives that cadets can choose from to meet the minimum 15 credits.

Space Force Training

Exposure to the Space Force starts with required briefings as part of the professional training for new freshman cadets. Opportunities to learn from Space Force officers continue throughout the four years at USAFA. Space related clubs include the Cadet Space Operations Squadron, an astronomy club, rocketry club, and a strategy & policy club. These activities are open to any cadets, not just those aiming for the Space Force.

Cadet summer training traditionally includes the Operations Air Force program, where rising juniors learn about potential career fields at Air Force bases around the US. In Summer 2021, through the new Operations Space Force program, around 70 cadets visited Space Force bases to get a deeper orientation to what they might do if they become Space Force officers.

Finally, the Air Force Academy is developing a program for rising seniors called Azimuth. This is an intensive summer training and assessment program modeled on the Naval Academy’s Leatherneck training for prospective Marine Corps officers. The Azimuth program will draw from pre-astronaut candidate training to “motivate, inform and also evaluate” cadets. The Space Force assignment board will consider performance in Azimuth, academics, and extracurricular activities when making service assignments decisions.

Conclusion

Over forty Air Force Academy alumni have become astronauts and the Air Force has many space related missions. However, the Space Force is more than just space operators. The Air Force Academy plans to expose cadets to the range of responsibilities held by future Space Force officers. The goal of these initiatives are to generally increase “space mindedness” for all cadets. This will help them in their careers, whether they commission as Space Force or Air Force Officers.

There will be very few opportunities to commission into the Space Force from other service academies. According to Col. Jeffrey Greenwood, the US Space Force Liaison to the Air Force Academy “If you want to come to the Space Force, you need to come to the Space Force Academy – and that is USAFA.” This echos comments from Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond (the service chief of the Space Force) in June 2021. Because the Space Force only brings in around 300 officers a year, he doesn’t see a need for a separate Space Force Academy. The largest group of officers will come from USAFA and Air Force ROTC. The Space Force also has a University Partnership Program to reach out to college STEM majors who are interested in space.

High school students interested in the Space Force should watch the whole episode. It will give you a broad view of what training you might expect as a cadet. It may even suggest topics to discuss in application essays or during interviews. If the idea of attending a service academy sounds interesting, consider applying for one of the academy summer leadership programs when you are a high school junior.

ROTC Scholarship Board Dates

aerobatics air air force aircraft

Students often ask when they should submit their ROTC scholarship applications.  The short answer is to submit a strong and application early enough to be competitive when there are still many scholarships available. I’ve listed most of the ROTC scholarship board dates below.

You definitely don’t want to miss the application deadlines. Usually, applications that are not complete when the application closes do not go before a review board at all. Some services allow interviews to occur after the scholarship deadline, as long as the interview is completed before the final board of review. Because ROTC scholarship applications are more complicated than the average college application, you should start early and work diligently through the process.

Army ROTC 4-Year Scholarship Board Dates

Army ROTC Scholarship Information

2022-23 Scholarship Application OpensJune 12, 2021
Deadline to Submit Documents for First BoardOctober 5, 2021
First Selection BoardOctober 18, 2021
Deadline to Submit Documents for Second BoardJanuary 11, 2022
Second Selection BoardJanuary 24, 2022
Application Deadline 2022-23 High School ScholarshipsFebruary 4, 2022
Deadline to Submit Documents for Final Board (Missing Items)March 1, 2022
Final (Third) Selection BoardMarch 14, 2022
FY22 Army ROTC Scholarship Board Dates

Air Force ROTC High School Scholarship Program (includes Space Force)Board Dates

Air Force ROTC Scholarship Information (Includes Space Force)

2022-23 High School Scholarship Application OpensJuly 1, 2021
Deadline to Submit Documents for First BoardOctober 15, 2021
First Selection Board (22HS01)October 18, 2021
Last Day to Submit Completed ApplicationJanuary 13, 2022
Deadline to Submit Documents for Second Board (Interviews)February 22, 2022
Second Selection Board (22HS02)February 21, 2022
Deadline to Submit Documents for Third Board (Interviews)March 18, 2022
Third Selection Board (22HS03) [Only convened if needed]March 21, 2022
Last Day to Accept Scholarship OffersMay 31, 2022
FY22 Air Force ROTC HSSP Board Dates

Navy ROTC
Marine Option

Navy and Marine Corps ROTC Scholarship Information

First Selection BoardNovember 2021
Deadline to Submit Completed ApplicationJanuary 31, 2022
Second Selection BoardFebruary 2022
FY22 NROTC-Marine Option Scholarship Board Dates

Navy ROTC
Navy Option and Navy Nursing Option

Navy and Marine Corps ROTC Scholarship Information

2022-23 Four Year Scholarship Application OpensApril 1, 2021
Last Day to Submit Completed ApplicationJanuary 31, 2022

The Navy holds frequent review boards for Navy Option and Navy Nursing applicants from September through April. (See below for Marine Option.)

When to Submit ROTC Scholarship Applications

If the application opens in July and the first board is in October, submitting an application in August that was rushed and has a weak score on the fitness test doesn’t present a strong case. The board isn’t going to give a pass on a slow run time just because the student submitted their package early. On the other hand, don’t wait until the last minute. If the board receives strong applications on earlier boards, they may select fewer scholarships on the later boards or cancel them altogether. Note for example that the third Air Force board will only convene if needed.  

In my experience, later applications reflect procrastination, not time spent working hard on improving the application. My general suggestion is to submit the application by October 1, unless you have an upward trend in grades and want to include first semester grades in the application.

ROTC scholarships can pay for tuition, fees, books, and a monthly stipend at a number of colleges around the US. Graduates commission as officers in the military. They have a military service obligation in return for the scholarship. If you have questions or need help, ask for it. This is one of my specialty areas at Admissions Decrypted. You can also contact the ROTC staff at one of the colleges you are interested in attending. If your high school has Junior ROTC, those instructors could also be a resource (even if you are not part of the JROTC unit). 

Accommodations for the ACT Test

photo of person using wheelchair

Students with an IEP or 504 Plan

In the past, students had to request accommodations and prove that they had a qualifying need. But in July 2021, the ACT organization announced they would accept school-issued Individualized Education Plans (IEP) or 504 plans as sufficient evidence of eligibility. As a result, they will automatically allow the same accommodations on the ACT test that appear in the IEP or 504 plans.

Apply through the ACT website.

Homeschoolers and Students without an IEP or 504 Plan

Homeschoolers and students not currently enrolled can still get accommodations. In these situations, the ACT organization will review the request and then determine what assistance is reasonable. Students with short-term needs, like a broken arm, can request temporary accommodations.

Possible Accommodations on the ACT

Extra time
Breaks as needed
Wheelchair accessibility
Large print test booklet
A writer or scribe
Sign language interpreter
Authorized bilingual dictionary or translated written test directions (for English Language Learners)
Alternate test formats.

Students interested in using accommodations on the ACT test should start the process as soon as possible. By starting the request process early, you give yourself time to answer any requests for additional information. National Testing Centers provide most types of accommodations, but some accommodations may require testing at a Special Testing Center. Students who need accommodations should try to register for the ACT as soon as accommodations are approved. This will allow time to find testing centers that offer the needed assistance.

Students may also want to consider if applying through test optional admissions is a good choice. Test optional policies vary from college to college, but generally allow students to apply without submitting test scores.

College Admissions Interview Prep with LinkedIn

greyscale photography of condenser microphone

You might think of LinkedIn as something to use years from now when you are job hunting after graduation. But the platform helps more than just job seekers. There are features that can also help you research colleges and prepare for college admissions interviews.

How to Use LinkedIn to Practice College Interviews

In the Jobs tab [in the top menu on the desktop version] there is a link for Interview Prep. This opens up sets of frequently asked interview questions. They resemble the types of questions that admissions reps and alumni interviews also use.

Tell me about yourself.
What is your greatest strength?
Tell me about a time you were successful on a team.

Even the questions that refer to employment can be easily reframed for college admissions.

Why do you want to work here?” becomes “Why do you want to attend our college?”

Can you explain your employment gap?” resembles questions about dropping activities or moving high schools. It’s really asking about the context of information in your record.

What are your salary expectations?” could help you prepare for a conversation with admissions or financial aid to appeal a financial aid offer.  

Each question has an overview that explains what an interviewer might hope to get from asking it. Remember that the purpose of any college admissions interview question is to help the interviewer learn more about who you are and what your story is.

Use the Video Tool to Practice Your Interview

What’s more, there is a feature that allows you to record an answer to each question. This lets you see what you look like in an interview scenario, where you lose your place, or if you have distracting fidgets. It also shows you what your pace and intonation are, so you can see if you tend to speed up or get higher pitched as you answer.

Since remote interviews will probably stick around after the pandemic, it gives you a chance to view your lighting and background as it might appear during an interview. If you have friends or mentors who also use LinkedIn, you can even send them your video and ask for feedback.

I really like this feature and think practicing responses to the questions in the Common Questions section would prepare you well for most college admissions interviews.

3 Ways to Use the Summer to Get a Head Start on College Applications

Most colleges open their new application cycle on August 1.  Senior year will start just a few weeks later, with many class assignments, events, and activities competing for scarce time.  Early deadlines might feel like they are far in the future, but they will loom up faster than you anticipate. Take a few steps in the summer to get ahead on your applications. 

Make an Activities Master List

Most applications ask students about how they spent their time outside the classroom.  Activities don’t have to be an official school club or team.  They could include jobs, family responsibilities, volunteer efforts, participation in faith-based groups, and important hobbies.  This isn’t just to pad your resume. Colleges are giving increasing attention to the fact that some students spend many hours a week working or caring for siblings or that a student may not be in a school club but devote their free time to beach cleanups or creating film productions.

Create a list of that includes what you did, what your responsibilities and impact were, how much time you spent each week, and what years you were involved. Go into details about projects, what you did and how you felt about completing them. If there is a teacher, coach, or adult mentor who might write a letter of recommendation, make a note of their name and contact info. Your list should lead with the activities that are most important to you, rather than strict chronological order. 

Be expansive when writing this master list. The purpose isn’t to create something that is ready to attach to an application, but to create a detailed document that you can draw from when working on your applications. It’s ok to include bullet points, paragraphs describing an event or a responsibility, or a list of awards or performance pieces.

Pro Tip: It can be a good idea to ask your parents or a close friend if they remember any activities you’ve forgotten. Short term activities like a cyber camp or film conference might slip your mind, but might be combined with other activities in your application to demonstrate a thread of a deep and enduring interest area. When my own kids applied to college, looking back at old calendars brought up several items that we had forgotten about.

Create a Common Application Account

The Common Application is a portal used by hundreds of different colleges (from Aberystwyth University (Wales) to York College of Pennsylvania) to process student applications.  Students enter their personal information, school info, and activities on one main page, that is then sent to any participating college.  The advantage for students is that they don’t have to enter basic information on a multitude of different applications. (The advantage for colleges is that students are more likely to apply to their school if it’s a relatively easy add on rather than a totally separate application portal.)

The Common App does an annual rollover to the new application cycle.  The good news is that much of a student’s data is preserved in the rollover, so a rising senior can input this data during the summer and be a step ahead when the new application cycle starts.  Student accounts are frozen for about a week during the system refresh, usually around the last week of July. 

Data entered in the Common App tab will rollover.  This includes the subsections for Profile, Family, Education, Testing, and Activities.  Sections that do not roll over include answers in the My Colleges tab (which includes college-specific questions) and invitations to recommenders (or recommendations that might have been uploaded). So you should wait to enter responses to these sections until after the rollover has occurred.  This Application Guide for First Time Students can help you create your account and start filling out the application.

Pro Tip: If you are primarily applying to colleges in California or Texas, you might not use the Common App portal for your applications. In that case, take the time to research the applications you will be using so you have a better understanding of what you will need to submit.

Start Working on Your Essays

A strong essay should be primarily about you. It’s your opportunity to tell the admissions readers the rest of the story that they don’t get from reading your transcript, activities list, and test scores. Don’t procrastinate work on pre-writing exercises that helps you define and share what values, experiences, and goals make up your story.

Many colleges use similar essay prompts from year to year.  The Common Application has announced the Personal Statement prompts for 2021-22, which includes one new prompt to replace one that wasn’t used often. This means that you don’t have to wait until applications officially open in late summer to start thinking and writing about who you are and what strengths and attributes you will bring to the college community. If this is an area you want help on, maybe an Admissions Decrypted Essay Coaching Package is something to consider.

Pro Tip: You should always write essays and other supplemental writing responses in a document and paste them into applications. This allows you to use spell check and word count tools and protects you from losing hours of work if there is a system glitch in the application.

Start Working on Applications Now; Have More Calm Later

Each of these tasks takes time, usually more time than expected.  Getting a head start on completing college applications can relieve pressure from looming fall deadlines and allow headspace for putting together a high-quality application.  Don’t panic when you can’t access your Common App account during the system refresh.  Use this time to work on other tasks (like essays) so you are ready to go when rollover is complete. If you’d like help with your college applications or college planning, get in touch; I’d love to be part of your team.

Advanced Placement for Homeschoolers

Last week, I dropped my youngest kid at his last Advanced Placement exam. For me as a homeschool parent, this is the eighth year of navigating AP as a homeschooler. My kids have studied a bunch of AP courses, some with amazing online providers, one in a coop class I taught and some at home with me. I even learned to navigate the Course Audit process

We had a couple mid-year moves, which made exam registration fun, “Hi, I’d like to register my kids to take AP tests at your school. No, I don’t know what district we are going to live in.” One exam coincided with the outbreak of California wildfire season. I could smell one fire while waiting at a coffee shop during the first exam, and the second exam was rescheduled when the high school holding the exam became an emergency shelter.

We were also the beneficiaries of the kindness of strangers. Public and private school counselors and AP coordinators helped us find test spots (even when our closest local school barred the door). Other homeschoolers shared their insights about the Course Audit, creating a syllabus, and finding test spots (though I won’t miss the annual “AP Exam Commiseration” thread on my favorite homeschool boards). I wrote most of this post in the car after dropping the youngest off for his Calculus test. I hope it offers some help to those who are following behind us.

What Is Advanced Placement?

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college level courses available to high school students. Students take an exam at the end of the course and can receive college credit based on their score. So Advanced Placement is a specific brand of college level courses, not just shorthand for high level or advanced work. College Board (the same organization that does the SAT and PSAT) controls the course content, exam content, and scoring. A course cannot be listed as AP on a transcript unless the teacher has submitted their syllabus for approval through the CB Course Audit (more on that later). However, students can register to sit for an AP exam without taking an approved AP course. They might have taken another high-level course that covers similar content, or they might have self-studied for the exam. Since college credit is based on the exam score, this is a way for students to get credit for work they did during high school.

Can Homeschoolers Do Advanced Placement?

There are currently 37 different AP courses in seven categories, including art, English, history and social science, math and computer science, world languages, and science. Homeschoolers can sit for these AP exams (with two exceptions) This means there are lots of options for homeschool students to use Advanced Placement to dig into a subject area they are interested in.

The exceptions are the two courses in the AP Capstone Diploma program, AP Research and AP Seminar. Schools must apply for and be approved for the AP Capstone Diploma program. Students can only enroll in AP Research and AP Seminar (and complete the end of course tasks and exam) if they attend an approved school.  Homeschool students and online providers are specifically not eligible for these courses, by College Board policy for the program.

How Do Homeschoolers Register for an AP Exam?

There is no centralized, online registration for the exams. Instead registration is done by the high school offering the exams. Not all schools offer all exams, and some schools do not welcome outside students to their test administrations. This might mean as a homeschooler you will need to contact many schools to find one that is willing to register your student. It helps to first find schools you know are offering the course. Sometimes this is listed on the high school or school district website. You can also check the AP Course Ledger to find schools in your area that are authorized by College Board to offer each AP course this year. The Course Ledger is a good search starting point, but in my experience wasn’t always current on course offerings and was no guarantee that a specific high school would welcome a homeschooler for the exam.

Once you’ve located area schools that are offering a specific AP course, you will need to contact each school to ask about exam registration for homeschoolers. It is best to contact the school’s AP Coordinator. If this position isn’t listed on the school website, call the Counseling Center or Main Office and ask for the AP Coordinator. Once you get ahold of them, ask if they will be allowing homeschooled students to test there that year and what the registration process is. My experience was that the first person to answer the phone might not be well informed about registration for outside students, so it was better to hold off on a detailed explanation until I was talking to the AP Coordinator.

Some states’ homeschool laws require public schools to accommodate homeschoolers for testing (ex. Virginia), but this is the exception rather than the rule. It’s very possible that your local public school will not allow homeschoolers to test on campus. If this is the case, you will need to continue contacting schools until you find one that is willing to register homeschoolers. In some cases, private schools were more willing to offer a seat than local public schools were.

College Board has a fee for AP exams ($95 in 2021) that homeschoolers should expect to pay at registration, even if the district does not charge its own students to take the test. College Board also allows schools to charge administrative fees when registering outside students. The schools we used did not have additional charges, but I’ve heard this is common in other areas. If you are looking for an exam that the school doesn’t normally offer, some schools will coordinate proctoring if you pay for the cost of the proctor in addition to the test fee. This can get expensive, but might be less than the cost of traveling to a more distant site that doesn’t charge. If you do end up in the position of paying for a proctor, it may be worth putting the word out on boards and email lists for homeschoolers; you may find other interested students who would be willing to split the cost.

A couple years ago, College Board changed the exam registration deadline for schools to the fall. There is some leeway to allow homeschoolers to register later, but high schools might be reluctant to open registration a second time in the spring. My suggestion is to be in touch with high schools early in the fall, so you have time to call around.

Keep in mind that College Board has specific requirements for how far apart students sit during the exam, how seating is arranged, and even the shape of the tables. The closest high school might not have space available for many outside students, especially in commonly taken exams. Know your state law (to know if you should have access). If they say they aren’t offering that exam or are out of space, ask if they can suggest another school that might be able to accommodate your student.

One year, we moved to a new state and I was scrambling to find seats for AP European History, which no public school in the area was offering. I ended up on the phone with the AP Coordinator for the state Department of Education, who was trying to help me find a test location. Finally, she gave me contact info for a local private school I would never have called on my own, with a personal referral to their Dean of Students. In this case, it paid off to stay calm and polite while asking for assistance.

When the pandemic forced schools to close in 2020, College Board created digital exams that were administered at home. In 2021, there was a mix of traditional paper-based exams and digital exams, depending on the choice of individual schools. It’s possible that future years will make it easier for homeschoolers to register for and take AP exams.

How to Take Advanced Placement Courses as a Homeschooler

There are lots of ways for homeschoolers to prepare for an AP exam. The most direct is to take a course that has gone through a Course Audit and been authorized as an official AP course. Many online homeschool curriculum providers offer authorized courses. There are also providers who create curriculum for students who attend schools without official AP courses or who might not be able to fit an AP course into their schedule. Remember that the online course will not be in a position to coordinate exam registration. You will need to do that yourself.

It is also possible for a homeschool coop instructor or an individual homeschool parent to create a syllabus the follows official course guidelines and submit it for approval. This is a process I went through for AP English Literature and Composition, AP US Government and Politics, AP Comparative Politics, and AP European History. These were content areas I knew well and felt comfortable teaching. I created the AP US Government and Politics syllabus for a coop I was teaching; the others were just for my own kids.

Some students sit for an AP exam without taking an official course. This lets them demonstrate mastery that comes from other courses or self-study. This might be a good option for students who use classical education styles or a chronological study of history, or who have a subject area of deep personal interest. Remember that the exams are designed to test understanding at the end of a course with specific guidelines and learning objectives. It’s wise to spend some time with a course study guide and understand how free response sections are scored.

It is also common for native and heritage language speakers who are well prepared in a world language to take an AP exam for that language early in high school (or even in middle school). This gives them a way of demonstrating high level ability with the language, while opening up their high school schedule for other courses. (The official policy of College Board is that courses should only be labeled AP on a transcript if they are offered in grades 9-12. World languages are the exception to this policy.)

Labeling Advanced Placement Courses on Homeschool Transcripts

Because Advanced Placement is a brand label and not just a description of rigorous classes, you should only call a course AP if it has been approved through the College Board Course Audit process. So what do you do if you didn’t know about Course Audit, or missed the submission deadlines, or had a vision for a course that didn’t line up with the AP course guidelines. A common work around is to label the course as Honors or Advanced and indicate that it included taking the AP exam.

For example,
Advanced German with AP Exam
Latin IV with AP Exam
Honors Calculus with AP Exam

You can also explain the course in detail in the course descriptions you prepare to submit with college applications. This is another place to explain that the class included preparation for an Advanced Placement exam.

Advanced Placement isn’t the only way for homeschoolers to demonstrate academic rigor, but it can be one tool in your toolbox. I have fond memories of doing AP Comparative Government when we spent a month on the road during a cross country move. I also really enjoyed the time discussing poetry and literature as part of AP English Lit (though my son ended up writing on The Odyssey, a book he’d read for fun as the topic of his long essay). If AP classes meet your goals, don’t be afraid of them, but do stay on top of the exam registration timeline.

What Will College Cost?

person holding black ceramic teapot

For many families, financial fit is a key part of the college list building process. These families realize that being able to afford the cost of attending a college is at least as important as being admitted. They arm themselves with information about their family budget, financial aid practices, and where their student is likely to receive substantial financial aid. Read on and you can join the ranks of informed and prepared families.

Total Cost of Attendance = Direct Costs + Indirect Costs

When weighing the cost of attending a college, it’s important to consider both the direct costs, what you pay directly to the college, and indirect costs, other expenses that come from being a college student. Tuition, fees, housing, food, and books are examples of direct costs. Transportation, bedding and other dorm supplies, entertainment, clothing, toiletries, computers, laundry, club & activity costs, and fraternity/sorority expenses are examples of indirect costs. Some colleges make a reasonable effort to estimate the overall cost of attendance, but it pays to look at the assumptions. James Madison University, for example, includes transportation, personal costs, and even loan fees in their cost of attendance estimate. But students who live far from Virginia might find the estimated travel costs too low, and students with more expensive entertainment and recreation interests may find they have to boost their personal expenses costs at most of their colleges.

In State vs Out of State Tuition

You might have noticed a difference in the tuition costs depending on if the student is “In State” or “Out of State.” This a practice that recognizes the fact that public colleges receive some financial support from state governments. In essence, residents of the state are already supporting the college through their tax dollars. Sometimes this is listed as two separate tuition rates. Sometimes, non-residents are charged a non-resident supplement or surcharge in addition to the regular tuition rate.

States set their own policies about what qualifies a student as a resident for the purpose of tuition. Requirements vary, but typical considerations include where the student lives and graduated from high school, what state of residence the parents claim, and administrative evidence of residency such as paying income tax or registering to vote. Military families, expat families, and students who split their time between divorced parents may need to provide additional information in support of state residency claims. It may be difficult to establish residency after starting as a student at the college (in other words, most states don’t count time living in the state as a student as a compelling reason to adjust residency for the purpose of tuition). I highly recommend finding the college or state guidelines for demonstrating residency and reading them carefully. What worked for your neighbor a decade ago or your cousin in another state might not prove insightful in your family’s situation. Don’t be afraid of asking questions of the college (the registrar often handles this type of question) or of asking for an appeal based on additional information. As an example, these are the In State Residency guidelines for Virginia.

Types of Financial Aid

There are two main categories of financial aid and several ways that aid can be provided. How a college determines eligibility for financial aid and how they package it depends on a combination of the college’s resources and priorities and the student’s family resources and perceived value to the college.

Assistance can be in the form of grants (money that does not have to be paid back), work study (money earned through specific campus jobs), and loans (money that will have to be paid back). This aid might come from the Federal government (ex, Pell Grants, Federal Work Study, or Federal Student Loans) or from the college itself.

Need-Based Aid

Need-Based Aid is financial aid that is offered because the college has determined the student and their family have fewer financial resources that could be used to pay for college costs. This determination is made through a review of financial aid applications, specifically the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and/or the CSS Profile (a separate financial aid application used by about 300 colleges).

The FAFSA is required if students wish to use Federal Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Work Study, or Pell Grants. There is no cost to submit the FAFSA, which opens the October before the school year in which financial aid would be used and considers income from the “prior-prior” tax year. In other words, students who are seeking federal aid for the 2022-23 school year would submit the FAFSA that is available starting October 2021 and would use income data from 2020.

The CSS Profile is used by a smaller number of colleges, that are usually private or highly selective, and that often give large amounts of need based aid to help pay for heftier costs of attendance. This form is administered by College Board, and there is a charge to submit each application (fee waivers are available to low-income families). The CSS Profile asks far more questions in order to create a picture of family financial resources that goes beyond income and savings. The colleges that are most generous with need-based aid, tend to require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. [List of CSS Profile colleges and programs.]

Merit Aid and Scholarships

Non-Need Based Aid, sometimes called Merit Aid is financial aid that is not awarded because of the student’s family financial status. This aid might be labeled as scholarships and might be automatic, based on grades and test scores, or be competitive, with additional application requirements. Sometimes colleges will discount tuition for students in order to encourage them to enroll. Their experience is that a family may lean more favorably towards a college that offers a $20,000 discount labeled a “scholarship” than towards another college that simply prices its tuition $20,000 lower. The process of deciding how much discount each family might need to encourage their commitment is part of Enrollment Management, a growing industry used by colleges around the country.

Both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile produce a number that represents how much those formulas think a family should contribute EACH YEAR towards the cost of attendance. This is labeled the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), a figure that may feel out of reach to many families, especially those who live in high cost of living areas. [The EFC is being renamed the Student Aid Index (SAI) starting in 2023. There are also some changes to the FAFSA coming at the same time, that will increase aid eligibility for low-income students. More about these changes will be coming out in 2022, but for now, Jeff Levy has a good overview of the changes.] Unfortunately, very few colleges meet 100% of demonstrated need. Instead, students find that after federal and institutional aid is subtracted from the cost of attendance, there remains both the EFC and additional unmet need. This is often called gapping.

3 Ways to Estimate College Costs

So how do you come up with an estimate of how much your family would have to pay?

Net Price Calculators (NPC) are available on most college websites*. They ask for some of the same information required by the FAFSA or CSS Profile and will usually produce an estimate that includes Federal aid (including Federal Student Loans!), applicable state grants, and typical grants offered by the college. The more detail an NPC asks, the more accurate its results are likely to be. However, they are only an estimate and are not binding on future offers from the financial aid office. For example, here is a Net Price Calculator for University of Virginia. NPCs are usually updated shortly before the new application cycle begins in August. The easiest way to find them is to do an internet search for the name of the college and Net Price Calculator. *Federal law requires colleges that accept Federal aid to have a Net Price Calculator. Some colleges that do not accept Federal aid will not have this tool on their website. If that is the case with a school you are considering, contact the college financial aid office for more information about expected costs and institutional aid.

The Common Data Set (CDS) is a set of questions and responses that use a common format across all participating colleges. This provides information about admissions, costs, class size, number of degrees in each major, and financial aid. Section H is the section that includes Financial Aid results. You will be able to see how many students requested need-based aid; how many were determined to have need; how many received need-based grants, self-help (work study), or other grants; and what percentage of need was met. You can continue to the next set of responses to see how much non-need based aid was awarded the same year. Pay attention to both the percentage of students awarded aid and the size of the award. Question H5 addresses how many students took out loans and the average size of the loans. Be aware that this may not include all loans taken out by parents, such as home equity loans used to pay for college costs. This is the 2020-21 Common Data Set for University of Virginia. These are most easily found by searching for the college name and Common Data Set, then selecting the most recent year.

Another valuable resource is an annual Need Based and Merit Aid spreadsheet compiled by Jeff Levy and Jenny Kent of Big J Consulting. They pull data on need-based aid and non-need based aid from several hundred colleges and put it into a spreadsheet that can be sorted by field. If your family has high need, look for colleges that has a high number in “Average Percent of Need Met.” If your family has a high EFC but wants to control college costs, look for colleges that have a high number in “Percentage of Non-Need Undergraduates Receiving Merit Aid.” But keep a close eye on the amount of “Average Merit Aid Award” and remember that it may be subtracted from a higher cost of attendance figure, leaving a higher overall cost of attendance.

Financial Fit Is a Key Factor in College Fit

I know this may feel both confusing and overwhelming. It may seem like a lot of alphabet soup and really high numbers. Awareness is an important first step. Too often, families neglect these steps and apply to colleges without considering how much they will be expected to pay – each year of attendance. Spring of senior year rolls around and a student with hard-earned admissions decisions finds that few if any of her choices are actually affordable. It’s better to have this awareness of cost and affordability earlier in the process. When I am supporting client families through this process, I always ask them to make an honest assessment of their college budget and estimated need, so that when we create their student’s college list, at least some of the schools are affordable and likely to admit their student.

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