There are many pathways to a college education, and recent years have only made this clearer. Homeschooling rates increased 63% in 2020-2021 and only dropped by 17% the next school year. This suggests many students who started learning at home during the pandemic chose to continue learning independently. Homeschoolers made up only about 3% of students pre-pandemic, so it’s still a small population, but colleges are taking note.
Generally, colleges look for the same qualities in non-traditional applicants as students who had a typical high school education. Academic achievement, community involvement, and strong recommendations all matter. We spoke to an admissions official and an educational consultant for insights into preparing your application if your education was off the beaten path.
College Admissions for Homeschool Students and Non-Traditional Applicants
Broadly speaking, homeschool college guidelines, including those at Harvard, have similar requirements for traditional and homeschool students alike:
- Academic transcripts
- GPA (if applicable)
- Recommendation letters
- Details about extracurricular activities or community service
- Standardized test scores
Frankly, though, no students entering college in the last few years have had a “typical” education. Even students within the school system faced disruptions due to the pandemic and distance learning.
How many fellow homeschoolers might be at college? It depends. At MIT, for example, homeschoolers make up less than 1% of the student population. At St. Johns College, almost 10% of students were homeschooled.
Josh Tehonica, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment at Moravian University, says, “I would say [the number of homeschool applications] does seem to be trending ahead of last year at this time… We’ve had some students be very open in applications that they struggled a lot in COVID and online learning. Other students thrived in that setting, and there’s been an increase in students that have looked to do more of that non-traditional approach.”
Homeschool students may need to complete certain application materials differently. Your curriculum may not have grades, for example. Some homeschool organizations produce official-style transcripts for students. In other cases, parents should keep thorough notes to prepare their child’s transcript with details about their classes.
Homeschoolers won’t necessarily get a high school diploma upon graduation — and they don’t need one. As long as your student fulfilled high school requirements under your state’s home education laws, they don’t need a diploma or GED to count as a graduate. Due to this lack of official transcripts, however, colleges may put extra weight on standardized test scores since SAT scores may be their main way to compare homeschool students against their peers.
Nikkee Porcaro, an independent educational consultant and president of No Anxiety Prep, says, “We’re in a world where test scores don’t matter until they do and grades are real until they’re not… I think the landscape is, colleges are really looking for a package of leadership, involvement, and community.”
Explain Education Gaps on Homeschool College Applications
Students can miss a period of traditional academic work for a variety of reasons. Illness (either the student’s or a close family member), difficulty with distance learning, or happier reasons like performance opportunities can affect schoolwork. A young theater actor on tour or a competitive figure skater might have times when their passion comes ahead of academics. The application is a chance to explain what happened.
Tehonica says, “The two best ways they can do that are through an interview with an admissions counselor… [or] the essay is actually optional at Moravian, but we highly recommend that they submit an essay. This essay is an opportunity to tell us anything you want us to know about, especially if there was a time when you struggled academically, to tell us why you struggled and how it wasn’t a reflection of the kind of student you were.”
Get High-Quality Recommendation Letters
Recommendation letters aren’t the most important part of a college application, but they are a chance for admissions officials to get to know students better. Many homeschoolers in particular worry about recommendations if they don’t have years-long relationships with outside teachers.
Always start by checking the specific college’s preferences. With that in mind, here are the best places to start when asking for recommendation letters.
Tehonica says, “We have noticed that a decent number of homeschoolers take dual enrollment at community colleges, so we would suggest a letter of recommendation from a professor.”
About a third of all high school students earn college credits while in high school. Past research suggested homeschool students averaged 14.7 college credits, compared to public school students’ 6.6. Assuming this trend remains true, they may be more likely than public school peers to have a professor who can write a letter for them.
Tutor, instructor, or evaluator
Despite “kitchen table” stereotypes, many homeschool students study at least one subject with a non-family instructor. For example, families might hire a professional tutor for a subject like a foreign language that a parent doesn’t feel comfortable teaching. Homeschool organizations also sometimes offer classes led by a professional instructor. An evaluator from the local school district or a homeschool organization may also be able to speak to their academic strengths.
Porcaro says, “The best person to get a recommendation letter from is the person who knows you best, period. Once that qualification is hit, try to get a recommendation letter from a core subject like English or math.” If you can submit multiple letters, consider asking for one from a core subject instructor and one from someone connected to a student interest (e.g., a music teacher).
Coach or supervisor
Whenever possible, a letter of recommendation should come from someone who can speak to the student’s academic achievements. But other people can also speak to traits like leadership, discipline, and strength of character. A coach or even a work supervisor could write a compelling recommendation.
Not every college will permit a parent to write their child’s recommendation. But many other colleges do accept and value recommendation letters from a homeschool parent. As your child’s primary educator, you have the best overall insight into their academic development.
Tehonica says, “The overarching thing colleges want to see is, how is the student going to perform in college? Are they going to handle the work, are they going to perform academically, are they going to contribute to student life and be a good member of that campus society?”
In terms of writing a recommendation letter for your child, that means showing reasons your child would thrive at college. Any parent (and many teachers) could easily write that a student is “amazing” or “hardworking,” but generic praises don’t stand out.
Instead, Porcaro says, “We want to focus on quantifiable statistics and achievements.” That could mean improving grades (or another measurable indicator if a homeschooler is using a grade-free program), winning a competition, or creating something impressive. A memorable anecdote helps, too. Porcaro’s rule of thumb is, “The first half to three-quarters is academic, then a story that’s more qualitative.”
Stand Out in a Positive Way
College is primarily a place to learn, so academics matter most. Even so, admissions officials want a well-rounded student body. They look for accomplishments, enriching experiences, and traits like work ethic that will help students succeed.
“First and foremost, we’re looking at the performance in high school, what classes they’re taking, what grades they’re getting,” Tehonica says. Work achievements can also impress admissions officials. “I think it’s very impressive to balance a 15 hour per week commitment with academics. It speaks volumes about the student’s character to be able to do that.”
Athletic or performing careers are also both impressive achievements.
Porcaro says, “I advised an opera singer. We obviously put a video link on her application! She was really into UC Berkeley, which is one of the harder schools to get into. From an early age, she was going to school half a day or two days a week and then training to be a singer.” Her impressive background and grades made her an appealing applicant, and she got in.
Both Porcaro and Tehonica recall baseball players who spent time learning outside a school setting to accommodate their athletic schedules. Homeschoolers are eligible for the same athletic scholarships traditionally-schooled peers are, so families of student athletes should look into those opportunities to stand out as well.
Find Advocates in Admissions
Making a positive first impression with college admissions officials doesn’t have to start with the application. College websites list admissions contacts. You can call or email (check if a particular staff member handles your region) with questions about presenting unique parts of your background. Porcaro says thoughtfully prepared questions can show initiative.
Tehonica says, “For any student, no matter what their type of education, visit the campuses and most importantly, try to talk with faculty members. If they’re looking to be nurses or in neuroscience or business, talk with the faculty in that area.” These professors will be your main connection to experts in your intended field. Professors matter not only in the classroom but also in helping you prepare for a career path after college.
What’s more, Tehonica says many college admissions committees have faculty on board. The main reason to connect with faculty is to learn more about what the college experience might be like. If you happen to meet with a faculty member on the admissions committee, they may remember you when you submit your official application. One meeting won’t flip a “no” to a “yes,” but there’s still a benefit to making a positive impression.
Whether a non-traditional education was a pandemic-related curveball or your lifelong plan, your college application can be strong without looking identical to public school peers. (After all, one advantage of homeschooling is customizing your classes!) Colleges are looking for strong academics and a character that will benefit the campus community. Showing your academic commitment and highlighting choices that make you unique can be a great start to finding the right college fit.