College Admission and the Difficulty of the Homeschooled Applicant

Do you know what it’s like to have your child get rejected for admission at the college he’s dreamed of going to since he was 8, where his heroes and mentors studied, and whose online courses he’s taken, and whose professors he’s worked with — and to have the horrible knowledge that it is all your fault?

Every year, when the subject of the caprice and ridiculousness of current college admission pops up, I go back into this madness. Elite colleges carry the brand of wanting to educate the best and brightest of each current generation, but none specify how they define this (achievement? ambition? wealth?) while also swearing to each and any possible applicant that they, too, may have what it takes.

My son had a particular ambition for mathematics from a young age, and after he finished elementary school, I chose to homeschool him because the system couldn’t educate him at his proven capability, and I had already been teaching him high school geometry in fifth grade myself as a result. Initially, I thought I would only do it through the middle school years, but we were having fun in our own kitchen chemistry lab, learning about classical composers, and exploring art movements at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, while his schooled peers shared horror stories about their classrooms. And as the saying goes, God watches over children and fools — he was a child, and I was a fool — and through a succession of miracles he found himself with a brilliant mentor and a community of academics that took him under wing. I took care of lab tests, teaching him literature and foreign languages (German and Latin), and making him write at least one essay a week. He started publishing articles and research, and we had the freedom to travel and work.

And so, rather than send him to our local high school, I created my own college prep program for him. The California educational curriculum standards towards getting into a UC school were (and in my opinion still are) particularly good, and I used that structure, together with a Classical twist.

But as his de facto college counselor, I had the horrible inkling that nothing I could do or teach him would win him a spot at any college. It didn’t help that other homeschoolers didn’t seem to be taking education seriously, and there was no way for me to differentiate the rigor I was putting my son through from another home school where literature class consisted of doing interpretive dance of a Harry Potter novel. Would any one believe me that we weren’t that?

Creating a coherent high school transcript was an especial nightmare. The California curriculum defined which subjects should be learned, but the time frame of any transcript assumes a child in a room for an hour or so. Depending on the capability and aptitude of the student, some subjects take longer to truly master; others require little more than a competency test. What of the boy who could skim a calculus text book and then take the final test and score perfectly?* Or the girl who loves Flowers for Algernon so much she wants to dig deeper into the ethics of how we treat the mentally disabled in our society? My son’s most rigorous lab course was done while he was in 7th grade, but a transcript had to be limited to four years. And not to mention the notion of giving out “mom grades.” Assigning grades was a ridiculous notion — the subject was going to be mastered, period.

I expected any prospective college to weigh outside grades and tests heavily, and my son delivered these easily. He took math classes at San Jose State as an outside student and received an A in each. He got a perfect score on the SAT as well as making the National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist list. He took AP tests without taking the AP courses, and received 5’s. He scored well in SAT subject tests as well.

I also expected readers to consider his extensive portfolio of work and impressive accomplishments. In the case of his dream school, we had to pay extra for the portfolio to be included, but I (foolishly) assumed that the extra money would mean someone would look at it. I also noted his most outstanding work (such as breaking a math record at the age of 11, and the subjects he presented at math conferences) on his transcript.

Yet, no one has any idea of what really is “good enough” to merit admission at a prestigious university. Is it a high SAT/ACT score? Um, no — students with perfect scores are notably rejected. Is it great grades or taking hard courses? No, valedictorians are rejected as well. One season the rumor may fly around that colleges are looking for “well rounded” students and the girl with great grades who also sings in the opera and plays baseball collects rejection letters. Another season the rumor says colleges are looking for “pointy” students but the nerd who lives, eats, and breathes for writing mobile apps is out of luck, too.

And there’s no good way to tell which institution is more inclined towards a particular type or demographic, for most deliberately don’t differentiate themselves from the others. (No, this is not you, University of Chicago). According to the mountains of recruitment letters that arrived they all have beautiful campuses; cool accessible professors; a diverse and attractive student body; and just the right program for you, “insert name here.” What’s the difference between Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, and why should a Californian kid want to go to a school in Minnesota no one he’s grown up with has ever heard of? I’m not sure the people creating those brochures know either.

Well, there are a class which do receive notice that if they apply, they may expect acceptance: scholar-athletes with recruited for exceptional athletic ability and the notorious. And while I do have respect for scholar athletes (who have to manage both an academic load and athletic practice time), there’s no equivalent recruitment for academic stars — although my son’s mentor said this used to be the case. And as for notoriety getting you an in, it is a damn shame. I fear, but also suspect somewhere some ambitious kid is hoping his or her school also gets shot up so they can publicize their own fear and get into Harvard, too.

Knowing this, I had my son send in applications to his selected colleges. I was averse to sending out dozens, as his peers had done. I thought, this is supposed to be a choice, not a lottery. But the schools won’t tell you whether they want you, nor what it will really cost you to attend, until they decide after you’ve sent them money.

When those rejections appeared, I was devastated. It was me who had given him the not-good-enough education, not having any information about what those institutions wanted proof of. It was me who had cobbled together his eclectic transcript, not having any template of what was wanted (and for the lack of which, used a template for homeschooled transcripts offered by the Vanderbilt admissions office, and suggestions from a book.) As his counselor and his only liberal arts teacher, it was my recommendation that wasn’t compelling enough. But I also wondered if the reader had even looked at his application at all: could those accomplishments and impressive recommendations from famous mathematicians be ignored that easily? I had to comfort myself with the thought that if he had just gone to the local high school instead, he wouldn’t have gotten in either. He was just not going to get in there, and he probably shouldn’t even have dreamed of it.

It is a first world problem, to be sure, to not get in to a prestigious university. In San Jose, where we lived, most families are beyond proud to have their children go and get though any college. And while you can share the pride with a parent or grandparent who has a meritorious child land a spot in the elite universities, it is vexxing to see relatively unqualified candidates get in, too. I was thoroughly pissed off when a former colleague of my husband’s confided that she had had nothing to do with her own successful application to Stanford — a few thousand dollars and a professional created a transcript and produced just the right essays for her. Why hadn’t we just done that, she wondered. And what is it with students taking remedial classes at any university? Or stressing out and taking leaves of absence because of the difficulty of the coursework? Isn’t that clearly a mismatch between the candidate’s ability and the known rigor?

My son ended up going UCLA, where he’s done well. As a homeschooler, the process was direct. We sent them his SAT test, and I filled his dates for each fulfillment of the California curriculum into their form, and someone at least looked close enough to see my note that he had done Algebra II in 7th grade — or chose to admit him for his test scores. He received the equivalent of a high school diploma (the CHSPE) by taking a test. Not to mention, he was excited to go to LA and with him being a California resident, it was a school he could go to without having to take on a loan.

But homeschooling was hard enough without believing private schools accept and understand homeschooled candidates these days. Few specify what they want to see; the majority pat themselves on the back, make happy chirpy noises about homeschoolers without specifics of what constitutes an acceptable candidate, or how many they actually accept each year. Do they want kids who have taken accredited correspondence courses, and if so are there any which are recommended? Do certificates of course completion at, say, Coursera, have any weight? Will they reject the autodidact performing artist because he doesn’t have classroom experience? Without any information on what the colleges want to see, it’s just a waste. This experience is one reason why we moved to a place with rigorous public schools, rather than have me homeschool my daughter. And why I will encourage her to either skip college, or at least not apply to private ones, because the process is just too false and opaque.

  • The brilliant (and American) boy who could learn advanced mathematics so quickly is not my son, but rather a homeschooled peer of his. That boy ended up going abroad to (and graduating from) a European university, where you get in by test and you know why you got in or didn’t. The girl who loves Flowers for Algernon, by the way, is my daughter, whom I introduced the book during a brief time when I was homeschooling her.

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