Photo by Debby Hudson on unsplash.com
By Katherine O’Brien, MA CCPS
Katherine O’Brien, MA CCPS is a Catholic homeschooling mother of six who has homeschooled since 1998. She is the founder of Celtic College Consultants and has served college bound teens all across the US since 2004. Students in her recent classes were offered over $225,000 each, on average, in merit scholarships. In 2017, Katherine compiled and released Every Catholic’s Guide to College: The 315 Best US Colleges & Universities for Practicing Catholics, 2018. It is available on Amazon.com. Kolbe Academy families are eligible for 10% off of all services.
In this series of articles I will address a number of factors of high school education from a college admissions perspective. As a Catholic homeschooling mother of six and a professional college consultant, I will share some of my experience and knowledge in this series of four articles. In the first article, I discussed the overall perspective colleges have with regard to homeschoolers and the various tests that are often part of the high school experience. In this article, I’ll examine the various types of courses high school students can take. Next time, athletics, extracurricular activities, and leadership will be the focus of the article. In the final article, financial aid, scholarships, and college funding topics will be addressed.
My goal is to educate families so that they can prayerfully make the best decision for their children. Each child and family is different. Out of respect for that, I seek to provide information, not to persuade the reader to a particular action.
Not surprisingly, academics are the most important qualifications for college entrance and success. Students will present their academic credentials to their prospective colleges in a number of ways. The courses chosen, grades earned, and test scores earned are the main ways academic credentials are presented through the admissions process. The various tests were addressed in the last article; we’ll explore course options in this one.
High School Courses
Homeschooled students have an advantage over traditionally schooled students because they have access to a limitless number of classes on various topics. In order to capitalize on this opportunity, it’s essential to know your child’s needs and find the appropriate courses and opportunities for him or her. This requires effort, good communication with your child, excellent organizational skills, and, sometimes, outside assistance. Without a focus, however, selecting and prioritizing courses (and diploma programs) is impossible and there’s no choice but to guess or “go with the flow.”
Customization Options Abound
Homeschooling families have the opportunity to tailor the curriculum of each student child according to his or her needs no matter their academic strengths and weaknesses, learning styles, or the extent of their extracurricular pursuits. Homeschoolers can take a significant number of college courses, even completing an associate’s degree as a high school student. While many institutional high schools will allow students to take a few college courses, most limit that access significantly. Needless to say, students who graduate with significant numbers of college credits have a greater chance of being accepted and they typically shorten their length of time at university, saving tens of thousands of dollars and months and months of time.
Courses can be structured or unstructured, hands on or theoretical, in person or virtual, live or recorded. The plethora of options can be overwhelming but becomes more manageable once the parent narrows down the field to those that are most appropriate to a given student.
Planning with the End in Mind
Families who homeschool through Kolbe Academy, for example, will have graduation requirements to meet according to the different diploma programs. Those who earn an accredited diploma will, as far as college admissions is concerned, be considered similarly to institutionally educated students. Homeschooling families choosing a non-accredited diploma program may need to set their own graduation requirements and will need to pay close attention to any additional requirements set by the student’s prospective colleges. It is essential that parents meet the most rigorous and demanding of these requirements. Consequently, determining the likely fields of study and colleges (or types of colleges) will need to be done as early as possible in order to ensure that the proper courses are all taken.
With all of that in mind, it is important for families to create a tentative four-year course plan for each student. Revisions may need to be made as you progress. Nonetheless, planning enables the parent teacher and the student to see the flow of the subjects, ensure that all high school graduation and college entrance requirements will be met, and to schedule out the various college entrance tests that will need to be taken during the high school years. Additionally, seeing the sequence of courses required for a certain major or cluster of majors can confirm or dissuade a student from pursuing that path. Remember, it doesn’t cost a penny to change majors while you are still in high school.
All of that begs the question, what types of colleges will we be applying to and for what purpose. Will we be applying to apprenticeship or certificate programs? Liberal arts colleges? Research universities with a strong Catholic presence? Schools with internship or cooperative education programs? Arts programs? Engineering schools?… Taking time to assess the personality, interests, inclinations, and God’s call for each child during freshman year is incredibly helpful. In my private college consulting practice, I use a tool called Focus2career that combines data from surveys the students complete to suggest possible careers. To that I add personal meetings and prayer to assist students with the process of identifying possible career paths to explore and with defining their college goals. Knowing those, as well as their learning style and the available course options, are essential to creative an effective high school course plan.
Homeschooled students have access to all of the AP courses through the Pennsylvania homeschool website. AP courses are designed and approved by the College Board. Consequently, they are strongly Common Core-aligned and emphasize the perspectives espoused by the College Board. Catholic students will need to broaden the scope of these courses in order to incorporate a Catholic perspective on the subject or historical period(s) being studied.
Admissions committees see AP courses as an indicator of rigor. For very competitive colleges, top applicants will have taken eight or more AP courses.
Please note: students do not need to take the AP class in order to take the AP test in that subject. Please see the previous article in this series for more information about AP tests. Additionally, students who take AP courses are not required to take AP tests. However, the colleges will wonder why the test was not taken. Some students will substitute the SAT subject test or CLEP test for the AP test.
Class grades show admissions how a student performs day in and day out. Tests show how they did on a given date for a few hours. Consistent high level performance in their classes is a greater indicator of college success. However, test scores are convenient measures so are held in high regard.
Taking college courses while in high school will enable students to study subjects not typically taught in high school and/or to take more advanced courses than they otherwise could. In many states, tuition is waived for high school students taking community college courses. At many community colleges, courses may be taken online in addition to being on campus. Your local high school and/or community college will be able to advise you about the policies and procedures in your area. This information is often available on the community college’s website. Some colleges have age requirements and other policies that will affect your plans. Be sure to explore the possibility carefully.
Admissions committees recognize that students with college credits have already learned how to be successful doing college level work. College courses are run differently from high school courses and these students have learned how to schedule their work, take responsibility for themselves, advocate for themselves, and work to a higher standard than high school students do. High school students who take college courses before they graduate will still apply to college as first year students. Thus, they have the advantage of being eligible for the many scholarships available to first year students (as opposed to the relatively few available for transfer students). Remember, high school students applying to college are first year applicants, whether or not they’ve taken college classes while they were in high school.
Creating a transcript can seem like a daunting task. It doesn’t have to be. Indicating when courses were taken, the course provider, and the grades are the primary tasks. Weighting grades is optional, but will need to be indicated on the transcript. For those not familiar, to weight grades is to give more points for an A in an honors, accelerated, AP, or college class than for an A in a “regular” course. The use of weighted grades is how some students have grade point averages (GPAs) higher than 4.0. Using a scale of 0-100 is an option, as well.
Numerous templates are available for creating transcripts for those who do not use a program like Kolbe’s that creates transcripts for you. There are also professionals (myself and others) who will do this work for you. Additionally, there are services that can accredit a non-accredited diploma. Independent homeschooling families should keep track of all text books used, course providers, and books read as part of coursework. Some colleges will ask for this additional information.
Students taking college courses during their high school years need to remember to submit both their high school and college transcripts to prospective colleges during the application process. The colleges require both despite the fact that all of the courses will be listed on the high school transcript.
Admissions officers will use transcripts for two main purposes. First, to see the grades the student has earned and any trends of increase or decrease among the grades. Second, they will also notice the level of challenge the student has chosen. Along with a transcript, the school (or parent) will send a one-page description of the school. Among other things, this will indicate the course options available to the student. For example, a student who took 6 AP courses sounds like a more robust candidate if s/he attended a school that only offered 6 than one whose school offered 15 AP courses.
Now that we’ve covered the academic areas, the next article will focus on leadership, extracurricular activities, and athletics. The final article will cover financial aid, scholarships, and college funding.