September has been the month of college. We moved Owen into their dorm in Chicago, and Sam and I have been working with Mo on applications.
Thirty years ago my parents steered me toward a small liberal arts college, but what did they know? I thought I knew everything at 18 and chose a state school across the country because a) it was really far away and b) it offered me a full scholarship. I never considered the similarities between that school and the university down the road I had soundly rejected, though I could articulate clearly the reasons why University Down the Block was not right for me. I’m not sure if visiting State School Across the Country would have made alarm bells ring for me, but certainly a semester of classes did the trick. During my freshman year there, I applied to five completely different schools, abandoned my scholarship, and ended up at a much smaller liberal arts college that was a great fit for me.
So you can imagine my great apprehension about my kids’ applying to college as homeschoolers. This seems silly to me in retrospect, since I applied to nine colleges myself and then to medical schools three years later. I should be an ace application coach. But this felt different, because we didn’t have the high school application machine behind us.
Mo is my third college applicant, and I have a few suggestions for how you as a parent can make your child’s application process smoother.
One: Keep good records all the way through high school, including book lists.
Not every school requires this, but some colleges want a detailed list of the classes you offered at home and the books you studied. This blog was my secret weapon, but if you don’t have years of curriculum blogging to turn to, you can look back to your school planner/calendar. Our library keeps a running list of all the books we’ve checked out over the years (happily without an asterisk on every book that we turned in late.) If you haven’t kept good records so far, be kind to your future self and start now.
Your child should be keeping a list of their volunteer engagements, awards,
speaking opportunities, honor societies, quiz bowl championships, etc. This list
will be helpful for several purposes:
· The adults who have agreed to write your student’s recommendation letters will need the details in order to highlight your child’s strengths.
· This will be invaluable to your student in writing down all their accomplishments for school and scholarship applications.
Two: Location, location location.
Our one rule for our kids’ college search has been to choose a school where we have someone we we can call to sit with them in the emergency room until we can get there.
This rule led Jonah to an excellent school that has been a great fit and is 10 minutes from his godmother.
This rule led Owen to an excellent school in Chicago where we have both family and dear friends.
This rule helped Mo’s list of zero schools expand to eight colleges in five cities. The amount of mail my kids get from colleges is overwhelming. Mo didn’t have any idea where to start looking, but Google did the work for her when she put “college in _______ with dance and math majors” into the search bar.
Three: Don’t let finances determine where you apply.
Finances come later, after your student has been accepted.
I had the misconception that we would only be able to afford a public state college. I’m not convinced that piecing together twenty small scholarships to cover a big bill is worth it, but the extra financial resources of private colleges/universities changed the financial equation for us.
Jonah got into several liberal arts colleges we considered more or less equivalent in quality, cost and prestige, but using the same data, they calculated our financial aid completely differently. I have no doubt that he ended up at the right school, but we almost didn’t apply there because I thought the cost would be prohibitive.
Four: As much as possible, use the Common App.
Remember when every college had its own application? Me too. The good news is that many colleges have come together to streamline the application process. The Common App allows your student to fill in all the demographic and school information once online, and send later it to as many colleges as they desire. The Common App includes a common essay, with a variety of prompts to choose from. Alas, individual colleges still have individual fees for applying. That part didn’t change.
Five: Consider using supplemental classes or test scores to help standardize your child’s application.
While a huge benefit of homeschooling is the individuality of our kids’ educations, this must be hard for colleges to interpret. Does “Alternative linguistic structure in creative writing” mean my child taught themselves full Elfin grammar from the Silmarillion and wrote a 300-page epic fantasy fan fic novel in Elfin, or does it mean they made captions for four memes that were popular on Twitter? I say, put it all on the transcript, but prepared to include in some detail what that meant for your kid. (See #1 above.)
If your kid has a strong traditional academic background as well, be sure to highlight it. Community college coursework, summer classes at your local college, and nationally standardized exams are helpful to schools trying to understand where your child fits academically. I’m not talking about just the ACT and SAT. AP exams and the National Latin Exam would work for this, too.
Six: Start thinking early about the application essay(s).
The Common App essay prompts are released in late summer and are good topics for early fall writing. The application essay is your child’s opportunity to show off their special interest in medieval armor, African dance, or matrices. Of course the essay should be well written and comply with the word-count guidelines.
We’ve gotten mixed feedback from friends/teachers my kids asked to read their essays. Advice leaned toward writing a generic, self-aggrandizing essay that highlighted the child’s academic strengths. But the schools my kids were most excited about asked questions that encouraged creativity. The schools that accepted them quickly and gave them the most scholarships were the schools for which my kids took risks in their essays. If I were reading thousands of college application essays, I would certainly notice the ones that demonstrated an unusual interest or sense of humor about a universal experience.
Many schools have essay requirements above and beyond the Common App essay. One is often some variation of, “Tell what aspects of our school make us your ideal college.” Rather than rolling your eyes at this one, use it to prod your kid to look beyond the shiny brochure that came in the mail to consider the school’s unique strengths or weaknesses. As we did the research for this with Owen, it became abundantly clear that a school high on their list would be a terrible fit.
If you’re looking at schools early enough, you may find essay prompts that work for multiple schools. These are the supplemental essays about the applicant. “Tell us something you are passionate about and that your application would be incomplete without mentioning.” Save time and choose to write these essays instead of ones that might work for only one school.
Seven: Get help with essay mentoring if you need it.
If coaching is writing is not your strength as a parent, or your parent/child relationship is too strained right now to do this, I encourage you to outsource your essay coaching. While putting themselves on paper for strangers to read may seem like the biggest hurdle, in reality our kids might have a harder time putting themselves into writing for us. The dance of self-revelation is a delicate one, and you might not be the best coach at this time for your kid.
Bravewriter.com offers college essay writing, as does the Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps there is a writers’ collective near you that offers in-person or online coaching, or a friend your child sees as an ally.
Eight: Early Decision and Early Action are different beasts. Early Decision allows a student to apply to only one college early (usually around November 1,) and if they are accepted, they are committed to that school even before seeing the financial aid package.
Early Action, which is not offered at many schools, allows a student early consideration of their application. They may apply to multiple other schools for Early or Regular Decision, and they do not have to commit to a school until the regular deadline in the spring (after financial aid has been awarded.)
We had good luck with Early Action for Owen. I think it made their application stand out in a year with record college admissions. Being admitted early also meant that the school began considering them for merit-based aid early, while there was still money to be spent.
Nine: Consider visiting a few schools at some point, but don’t make this the pinnacle of your process.
With Jonah, we visited a few schools in the fall of senior year. This backfired, as those became the only schools where he could imagine himself. Then, when those weren’t the schools he got into or we could afford, he felt disappointed and stuck. We finally visited his most affordable choice at the end of April, and he found his people within ten minutes of arriving on campus. It all worked out, but I wished we had been more strategic in visiting categories of schools instead of particular favorites.
Owen had a chance to visit two large state schools, Jonah’s small college, and a mid-sized urban private school before applying. We talked about these as prototypes rather than specific college options. We had plans to visit Owen’s top two or three choices before making a decision, but COVID made all college visits virtual which wasn’t helpful.
For Mo, we made a list based on location and her unusual choice of major (see #2.) We plan to wait and see where she gets in, what her financial aid looks like, and the state of the pandemic before visiting her top choice(s).
Ten: Most importantly, keep college in perspective.
College is not the end point of education. College does not define a person’s worth. Having a college degree does not make someone educated. It does not guarantee kindness, happiness, or meaningful work.
Our kids have internalized pressure that Sam and I never intended them to feel, and it has caused them a world of hurt. Make sure your teenager has no opportunity to misinterpret your enthusiasm for the next step of their schooling for a statement about their worth as a human.