Applying to College as a Homeschooler, or How to Create the Persuasive Homeschool Application, Part 2
Part 2: The College Application in Parts (1/3) – Standardized Tests and The Outside Letter of Reference
When evaluating a college application, an experienced admissions committee knows that the ACT, SAT, or CLT scores are not the last word on a student’s academic ability. Low scores can be misleading. The applicant may have been ill, in the middle of a family crisis, or tend to freeze up in testing situations. False negatives are a reality with standardized tests. But it is well-nigh impossible to get a false positive; nobody can fake a great score. So while low scores won’t necessarily sink an application, it’s true nevertheless that high scores are a great asset to the applicant.
They’re also a great asset to the admissions committee. First, homeschooled students (as mentioned in our first post) often don’t have any outside evaluation of their academic achievements in their college application. The person who graded the student—mom or dad—is the same person who stands to benefit if the student gets into college. Thus, an admissions committee desires to see some kind of testimony from outside the home. For many homeschooled students, this will be the standardized test.
Second, the standardized tests are, well, standardized. The exact same test is taken by great numbers of people each year, so the scores allow a committee to compare an applicant with a very large pool of peers. This is why the most important numbers in your student’s test results are not the scores themselves so much as the percentile rankings. A 1200 as compared to a 1250 may not mean much in itself, but the fact that your student outperformed 70 percent of the people who took this exact test says a lot.
So don’t be afraid of the standardized test, but take it seriously. Most especially, don’t take it cold. There are many tips and tricks to taking these tests. The score a student gets reflects not only his mathematical or language ability, but also his ability to take these tests. I recommend getting one of the many books or computer programs that help a student prepare. Make sure it comes with practice tests. Even just a few days of preparation will make a big difference. Remember that the other people taking the test are using these prep tools, so your student needs to ensure he’s on a level playing field.
Understanding the Scores
If a student’s test results are lower than hoped for, don’t panic—subscores matter. Maybe your child is trying to gain admission to a literature program but her math scores are dragging down her composite SAT score. Remember in this example that the admissions committee is going to pay more attention to her language scores than her math scores. On the other hand, if her math scores are high, but her language scores are low, the committee is not going to be impressed by a good composite score. They are looking to see that an applicant has the specific strengths their college’s program demands.
But even if subscores are low in key areas, there’s still no need to despair. Compensate for weaknesses with other parts of the college application. For example, a student can ask the person who writes his academic letter of reference to speak directly about that low test score. Let’s say that a particular college program is reading intensive. (I recall reviewing an application from a student whose critical reading score on the standardized test was abysmal.) Nevertheless, this student’s teacher wrote this in his letter of reference:
“The critical reading section of his test was very low, yet I have a multitude of papers from Joe, written by Joe without any assistance, that show he is comprehending what he reads for class.”
This was a powerful testimony for the admissions committee, and we ended up believing his teacher over the test. Let’s pick up this very point as I take up the letter of reference next.
The Outside Letter of Reference
To begin, I want to urge your homeschooled applicant to get one letter of reference from the “outside” for the college application, that is, from someone who only worked with your child in a professional capacity—not Mom or Dad or the neighbor.
Of course, to get such a letter of reference, your student will have to have some kind of out-of-the-home experience. I have found that this is a good thing to do anyway—it’s a great confidence booster. A former colleague of mine often relates the following anecdote about his wife. She came from a family of very gifted children, and comparing herself with her brothers she thought that she was probably not smart enough to go to college. It turns out that only one semester at the local community college was sufficient to cure her of that illusion! As a bonus, of course, it also opens up the possibility of an outside letter of reference.
A letter from outside the family offers a college admissions committee a couple of advantages that Mom’s letter can’t match. First, someone who teaches in a high school or a college can recommend the applicant based on a comparison with a much larger group. While Mom may homeschool a dozen kids, someone who teaches in an institution will have taught several hundred or even thousands of children. This sets that teacher up to provide some strong statements for the applicant. Consider this line from an actual letter of reference:
“I have taught in a variety of educational settings: public, private, and home school at both secondary and elementary levels. Rarely have I taught a student who is this capable on all fronts.”
That is a phenomenal recommendation!
A second advantage the outside letter of reference brings is, for lack of a better word, objectivity. Dad or Mom may succeed in being brutally honest about their child. However, the admission committee members “know” in the back of their minds that the parent writing the recommendation letter stands to benefit if the student is accepted. When the letter comes from someone who has only known the student in a professional capacity, that person doesn’t stand to win or lose by the student’s acceptance. Whether or not it’s fair, the admissions committee will feel that this is a more objective, and therefore accurate, testimony.
But if you can’t get an outside letter of reference, don’t despair. Even if you can get an outside letter of reference, it’s still a good idea to have Mom or Dad write one, because the parents have one advantage no one else can match. In the next post, I’ll explain what that advantage is.