Applying to College as a Homeschooler, or How to Create the Persuasive Homeschool Application, Part 4

writing essay

The College Application in Parts – The Essay, Awards & Activities,  and Some General Principles

The Essay & Authentic Authorship

In this post on the college application process, I would like to offer a few thoughts about the student essay. The essay contributes something very important to an application, because it is the only time the admissions committee gets to see your child’s work directly rather than as reported by a teacher or parent. It goes without saying that it should really be your child’s work. Anything else would make this part of the application pointless! But assuming your child writes his or her own essay, here are some suggestions you can make as a parent.

First and foremost, the student needs to show his own thought. Most colleges ask for an essay about why the student wants to come to their particular college. I don’t know how many essays I have read that basically said, “I want to come to My Favorite College because this is what the College website says.” Repeating what the website or catalog says is not helpful. The admissions committee is already convinced by the College’s website, but it’s still waiting to be convinced by the applicant!

Originality in the Essay

This problem comes up in more than one way. Some colleges also ask the student to write an essay on some book that he or she considers good and to argue that people should read the book. All too often, the applicant writes an essay that is just a summary of the book. “In this book, Frodo goes on a long journey. He travels with friends.” While it’s good to know that a student can summarize a book, what the college wants to see is her own thought. Let the committee watch her mind in action: the essay should open the hood and let the committee see the engine running.

Second, tell your student to consider how the admissions committee will perceive things. This is just the age-old rhetorical truth that you need to think about your audience. Try to be different (but not cutesy—don’t get too “creative”). Guess what the admissions committee probably sees all the time and then write about another book. I coined the term “Tolkien-Austen Fatigue” because seemingly every other essay we received was about either The Lord of the Rings or Pride & Prejudice. Now, in fact, The Lord of the Rings is among my very favorite books; indeed, I consider it to be a criminally underappreciated masterpiece. I also happen to be a big fan of Jane Austen. Nevertheless, even my eyes glazed over reading essay after essay on LoTR. There definitely can be too much of a good thing!

Choose instead another worthy book that may be a bit off the beaten path, something that will awaken a dozing admissions committee member reading through his fifth essay on Aragorn or Mr. Darcy. Also, your student should try to sound like someone the admissions committee will perceive as ready for college. Don’t choose to write on Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s a lovely book, but my ten-year-old has read it. Select a book that requires maturity of judgment and sensibility.

Activities & Awards

Before making my final point, I want to address briefly the conventional wisdom regarding listing activities and awards on a college application. That is, that a high school student planning to apply to college should be involved in as many activities, groups, service projects, etc., as possible so as to demonstrate his leadership abilities and dedication to community service.

Certainly, showing these types of activities can round out an admissions application nicely. Questions will be raised about a young man who holed himself up in his room and never got out of the house. Is he anti-social? Overly bookish? Can he get along with other people? Is he selfish? Painfully, debilitatingly awkward? Can he hold a job? Wasting his days away on social media? Is he addicted to video games? (A word to the wise: this is a huge problem among young men. I saw more than one fail out due to video game addiction.) You should advise your student to think how any empty section on the application (because all applications contain a section like this) will look.

On the other hand, don’t assume that a long list makes an applicant a shoe-in for acceptance. Might there be some padding going on? Are your student’s many activities a mile wide but an inch deep? An award? Did she actually achieve anything or was it a participation award? My advice is to aim for quality, not quantity. An applicant who can demonstrate that he can stick with something, develop a talent, and meet a long-term goal is much more impressive than one who can provide a laundry list of activities with little to show for it. Also, students who have done well in a job should list this on their application. Indeed, some of the best letters of reference I read were from bosses and managers – and yes – from coaches, music teachers, and youth group leaders, too.

And with these few thoughts about essays and achievements, we have finished my walk through the parts of the application. Before I conclude this series, I will offer a few thoughts about homeschoolers and the persuasive college application.

Some General Principles

Although the previous posts have focused on individual parts of the college application, some general principles stand behind most of what I have said:

  • Outside evaluation and opinion are valuable. This is one area where homeschoolers often struggle.
  • Story and detail are persuasive. This is one area where homeschoolers can have an advantage.
  • The different parts of an application packet work together. Think about how an asset in one part can balance out a liability in another.

Now I would like to add another general principle: be honest. Your student should put his best foot forward, but not pretend to be something he’s not.

boy hiding

The college admission committee’s job is not so much to be a gatekeeper, screening out “imperfect” students, as it is to be a matchmaker, insuring that the right student ends up at the right college and in the best way. Often, though, we as parents prevent the committee from doing its job by failing to disclose our child’s academic weaknesses.

The College Application and Learning Differences

Of course, our temptation as parents is to paint over our children’s weaknesses, but that’s not the problem I have in mind.  Instead, I’m thinking about one of homeschooling’s great advantages, namely the fact that we as parents can adapt our schooling to fit a child’s needs exactly. As a result, even a child with very unusual academic problems can do well at home—and that’s wonderful! That’s a reason to homeschool!

But it can lead us into ignoring problems that will become obvious and glaring as soon as the child is thrown into a new setting. Once in a while I read an application that says something like, “Jane did not learn to read until she was fourteen,” and I flinch. Kids learn to read at different ages, but fourteen is late by anyone’s standards. Does Jane have a learning disability that will suddenly become an issue when she arrives at college? Here is a sentence I have seen in one form or another many times:  “While his poor handwriting and spelling may make writing exasperating, a good laptop with spell check will fix it.” No, it won’t. While this could be quite normal, it also could be that the laptop is masking dysgraphia and the spell check feature is hiding dyslexia.

Head Potential Problems Off at the Pass

We don’t want our kids in the schools where they will be quickly labeled with a “disability.” On the other hand, we shouldn’t let our kids go through life with a genuine but undiagnosed problem. I have seen the suffering this causes: instead of getting off to a good start with a sound strategy in place, the student falls behind his peers and gets into serious academic trouble before anyone realizes there is a problem. His teachers try to help, but they try all the wrong things because they don’t realize how different he is from his classmates. The student feels embarrassed and discouraged.

When the root of the problem is discovered, it’s like day dawning after a long storm.  Suddenly the teachers feel empowered to offer help and exceptions to rules that otherwise would have seemed unfair. Suddenly the student can tap into all the strategies that all the other people with the same problem have discovered. Suddenly we are dealing with reality, in the open air, instead of groping in the shadows.

But too often this realization comes too late and at a very vulnerable time in a young person’s life. There are already bad grades on the books; the student has been through a very stressful semester or year; and he may even have fallen back a year in school. Not knowing about his problem before he arrived has caused a lot of unnecessary suffering. And if things get bad enough, he may have to break bonds of friendship he had thought were forged for a lifetime.

The law does not permit colleges to require the disclosure of learning disabilities, because admissions committees are not supposed to discriminate against the applicant on the basis of those kinds of things.  But if you figure out why your child is so different from his siblings and voluntarily disclose that in his college application, you will help the admissions committee play its matchmaking role by giving you the most honest judgment possible about whether a particular college curriculum is a good fit and by making sure your child gets the help he needs when he or she arrives.

I hope this blog post series has been helpful to you as you think about preparing your homeschooled high school student for college! If you’d like to contact me personally about anything related to the college admissions process, feel free to email me at eoinsuibhne@gmail.com. I’ll do my best to answer your questions.