Afraid of your “average” homeschooled kid’s university admission chances? Spend LESS time on academics!

Those of you who have heard me speak about university admissions know that I’m very optimistic (a “glass half full” kind of gal) when it comes to university admissions for homeschoolers.

I always mention the fact that “everyone knows someone (who knows someone etc.) who went to university with a 10 or 12 or 14 year old.” This is a perfect demonstration that there are very few “rules” that can’t be broken for the right child. Universities want exceptional applicants, and so I always suggest that effort is better spent cultivating the real and natural talents of a child instead of constraining them to fit in some arbitrary box to be packaged up for university admissions.

This advice is well-received by parents of the gifted/talented, but sometimes parents of “average” kids feel that it can’t be a strategy for them. I think they’re (often) wrong.

In fact, it may be the “average” kids who are most helped by this strategy. Students who would otherwise plod and/or struggle through a series of courses when they’re not the most academic kids in the world could instead be developing a real passion for something. I’m not one of those people who believes that “every child is gifted” but I do believe that every child can be really good at something. . . and that goes a long way to standing out as a homeschooled applicant.

I’ve written before about the possibility that formalized homeschool university admission policies can feel constraining; perhaps it was (in some ways) easier when we could naively walk up to the university and say, “I didn’t know you’d want that!” and then everyone would work towards a compromise based on what the child had already done. But, I firmly believe that most of the current policies are flexible enough to allow the “average” kids to spend some time working on standardized tests or other external evaluations while leaving loads of time to get really good at or really into something entirely different.

If you’ll allow me to put on my educator’s cap for a moment and be very frank, if a student can’t pull off average marks on standardized tests, 12U correspondence courses or other methods of evaluation, then perhaps a university program isn’t for him/her. All of the Ontario university homeschooling policies that allow standardized tests in lieu of a high school diploma require only slightly better than average test scores. This should be a relatively easy condition to meet, especially given that students can (and should!) plan years in advance for this.

This is a huge advantage over the traditionally-schooled kids who are sweating to bring their 85% up to an 87% because with grade inflation, that could be the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection letter. These kids only have one way of getting in: earning the highest grades possible.

Not only do homeschoolers have the opportunity to look impressive by pursuing a passion, but the very fact that they are well-developed in one area will translate to better achievement in traditional academic assessments. Kids with self-discipline, self-awareness, curiosity, focus, drive and motivation from even non-academic activities can easily apply these skills to their academics. Success, in any activity, breeds confidence. With this well-founded confidence (based on believing in themselves and not on someone else’s attempts to artificially boost self-esteem) there is no reason why “average” kids can’t achieve “average” test scores.

You can get angry with that statement (or me for saying it!) all you want. But, I’ve seen enough tests and worked with enough students over the years to know that it’s true.

So, even if your child is applying to one of the universities who explicitly state that only academic information will be used in the admissions decision, developing a passion and taking a skill/talent to the next level makes a lot of sense. You could spend your high school homeschooling days focused on the math that always seems too hard, or the books that are a struggle to read. Or, you could make a plan that satisfies university entrance requirements, execute it steadily over a number of years, and allow your child to spend just as much if not more time working at a high level on areas of strength as he/she does working at remediating weaknesses.

Although the article is seven years old, In a class by themselves (Christine Foster, The Stanford Alumni Association November/December 2000 Vol. 28, No. 6) clearly articulates why Stanford loves homeschoolers:

Among the nation’s elite universities, Stanford has been one of the most eager to embrace them. Despite the uncertainties of admitting students with no transcripts or teacher recommendations, the University welcomes at least a handful every year. Stanford has found that the brightest homeschoolers bring a mix of unusual experiences, special motivation and intellectual independence that makes them a good bet to flourish on the Farm.
. . .
For the past two years, for instance, the University has tracked every application from a home schooled student. These forms get flagged with a special code that lets reviewers find them among stacks of applications and helps admission officials chart emerging trends.
. . .
That’s a tiny subgroup, just 0.2 percent of the applicant pool. So why is the University interested? Admission officers sum it up in two words: intellectual vitality.

It’s hard to define, but they swear they know it when they see it. It’s the spark, the passion, that sets the truly exceptional student-the one driven to pursue independent research and explore difficult concepts from a very early age-apart from your typical bright kid. Stanford wants students who have it.
. . .
Among homeschoolers who end up at Stanford, “self-teaching” is a common thread. Parents usually teach in the early grades, assigning and correcting work, but later shift to a supervisory role, spending more time tracking down books and mentors. Stanford-bound homeschoolers typically take several college courses before they apply. The admission office encourages this, both to help with evaluation and to give students a taste of classroom learning before they arrive on the Farm.

Granted, Ontario university admissions is a different ball game. Applicants don’t generally provide extensive applications here like they do in the US. Ontario universities don’t often have the chance to offer admission to applicants based on their “intellectual vitality” as they are generally forced to use grades as the primary, if not sole, admission criteria.

But, those people who knew people who went to university with a young genius — those were Canadian stories, too. (One of my former staff tutors was in a math faculty in Alberta at the same time as a 12 year old.) And, what do you want to bet that this 12 year old had weaknesses in some other academic areas? Do you think he got such special treatment in the admissions process because he was forced to work, day after day, at his poor language skills? Or, do you think that he was able to stand out because he was allowed to cultivate his talent for mathematics?

Similarly, a passion for building from a young age could be very attractive to a university engineering department. A passion for animals can quickly lead to advanced scientific study. A strangely specific obsession with bridges or lighthouses will go a long way to laying the foundation for an architectural program. The basic math and language skills will come as long as they are not ignored. And, it will be a lot easier for students with minimal interest in core academic skills to study with specific goals in mind, such as the SAT, and not just because “math is important.”

This is why I believe that, for “average” homeschoolers trying to get into university, standardized tests are a huge blessing. (Yes, I said it!)

You as a parent can be sure that your child is focusing on some core academic concepts. The tests certainly aren’t about “education” — but how many other courses and programs out there truly are? If you have to jump through hoops, why not a hoop that takes up the better part of a Saturday as opposed to a hoop that requires four years?

The beauty is, that if you plan for it, you can make them about education because you don’t have to get caught up in the last minute cram frenzy. And, working slowly over years means that the test prep doesn’t have to take that much time in any one day/month/year, leaving plenty of time to develop natural talents and skills. At that point, you won’t be looking for ideas about “how to make math relevant to daily life” because your builder will be measuring and your animal lover will be organizing fundraisers for the local shelter.

And if by some chance the standardized test thing doesn’t go your way, your child has a talent/accomplishment/skill to fall back on. Johnny could simply start his own business right out of high school. Beth could continue doing what she’s been doing (since we know she’s passionate about it anyway) and apply to university again in a few years as a mature student. Tammy could apply to an Open University and start earning her degree that way, building up an academic portfolio. Justin could decide that it wasn’t really university he wanted/needed anyway, and look towards college or apprenticeship programs. But, no one would feel their time had been wasted.

How many high school students can say that?

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IB vs AP – Round Two

I’ve written about the differences between the AP and IB programs. In a nutshell, the IB is an entire comprehensive curriculum leading to a diploma whereas the AP program is a series of subject-specific examinations where students are free to pick and choose which exams they write.

Recently, the Thomas B. Fordham foundation sponsored a study “Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do they deserve Gold Star Status?” to compare the academic merits of the two programs, specifically comparing the Biology, English, Mathematics and History offerings of each.

The very act of comparing the two, however, requires some judgement calls: since the IB program requires all students to take a senior math course, there can be as many as six different “levels” of math courses offered by Ontario IB schools. Obviously, the content and goals of these courses will vary widely. Certainly, taking the highest of the “Higher Level” (HL) offerings provides a very different foundation than the lowest of the “Standard Level” (SL) courses. Similarly, there are two AP Calculus exams: AB is meant to cover a half-year college course, while AB is meant to cover the material found in a full-year, first year, American college calculus course. The study chose to compare the SL curriculum to the AB exam, citing the justification that both programs are for students not continuing in a heavily math-based university program.

The first problem I have with the comparison is that students who are not intending to study math (or math-related fields) in university have the option of avoiding AP Calculus altogether. Yet, every IB student must take at least SL level math to graduate with the IB diploma. It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a voluntary, advanced credit course with a required, high school mathematics program, but the point of the study was to establish whether one or both programs really deserved the reputation as a stellar academic program. So, we’ll go with it for now. 🙂

Given that comparison, I couldn’t comprehend how the IB math program scored higher (B-) than the AP calculus (C+). One of my beefs after several years of tutoring students in the IB program is how students are “pushed through” advanced math topics. This is because senior math is required of all students, and quite frankly, not all students are suited to senior level studies in math. And, given that your final IB “score” is dependent solely on the mark from the IB exit exams, an IB SL program really lends itself to teaching to the test.

When you know, for example, that there will be only one exam question concerning derivatives, probably based on throwing something into the air, it’s not too difficult to teach the least talented of students a pattern-based answer that requires no real understanding of the math concepts. There are few 12 year olds who aren’t capable of mimicking these steps.

Today’s update to the story comes via Jay Matthews at the Washington Post in Professor Says Editors Altered Review of AP, IB Courses:

David Klein of California State University at Northridge posted on his university’s Web site his original assessments of AP Calculus AB and IB Mathematics SL, which showed he would have given a C+ to the AP course and a C- to the IB course. The final version of the report, released Nov. 14, raised the IB grade to a B-, contradicting Klein’s view that the AP course was better
. . .
Klein says he does not consider either the AP or IB courses the gold standard for high school math, although in his original report he said they had some strengths not found in mainstream high school programs.
. . .
Klein also says that many of what he considered his strongest points were deleted by the editors, particularly his view that overuse of calculators could interfere with students’ mastery of analytical skills and conceptual understanding. (The report can be seen at

This, I get. I’ve long taken issue with how both of these programs overuse calculators and minimize manual calculations. The standard argument in favour of using calculators to remove computational barriers is this: the kids can then focus on analyzing and higher level thinking skills.

The problem is, as any good math student knows, our real understanding of mathematical concepts comes from using the underlying math, not avoiding it.

If you don’t know what dance the numbers are doing, you can’t possibly make meaningful sense of the result.

This is one reason why the MDM4U course (Data Management) is so hard for so many kids. I remember studying statistics at university before computer programs were used for the number crunching. I needed to know, by hand and with no formula cheat sheet, how to compute things like standard deviations and correlation coefficients.

You couldn’t get through that course without seeing all the nitty gritty steps involved in arriving at your stats. More importantly, since you knew exactly what you did with all the numbers, you understood what they meant. In the Data Management course, however, many students are using calculators and computers to avoid the “trivial” act of actually calculating the statistics — as if that somehow weren’t part of the point.

Granted, arithmetic isn’t mathematics, but arithmetic is how most of us come to understand numbers. Take that away from students, and they’re making a whole bunch of advanced conclusions, based on very little understanding.

I’m not arguing that it’s perhaps more interesting for lower-ability math students to be able to answer questions about whether given data shows a particular trend or correlation. But, without the ability to do all the work by hand, or at the very least understand it, these students are never going to be in positions where they’ll get to do that kind of higher level mathematical analysis anyway. So, what exactly is this really preparing them for?

It would be one thing if these programs made it very clear that they are shielding the kids from a lot of the real work. I’m all for a full-disclosure statement that informs the students there is a lot more involved in doing this stuff for real, and that they should use their interest/success in these courses to decide whether they want to actually study these concepts (properly!) in university.

But the problem, and the point of this study, is that these programs are often heralded as models of excellence in education. That’s not exactly consistent with the “warning — we’re taking out the ‘hard stuff’ so you can work at a higher conceptual level” disclaimer that should accompany these courses, at least as far as mathematics is concerned.

Public misunderstanding of mathematics and mathematical literacy (I guess the educrats want us to use the phrase numeracy now) have created a real problem in mathematics education. Because so many people think that math is “hard to do” they don’t realize how easy it actually is to teach and learn math through memorization of procedures and ignore understanding altogether. Therefore, to look at the “hard” questions on an AP Calculus or IB math exam and to see kids answer them looks impressive. Memorizing the encyclopaedia sounds impressive, too. And it is, but it’s a feat of memory and not of understanding or appreciation of knowledge.

For homeschoolers, the choice between the two programs is simple. It’s simply not possible to participate in IB offerings without regular enrollment at a local high schools, so AP is your only option.

Is AP worth taking at all? Yes, for many reasons. But, do so with the understanding that the act of preparing for the exam is separate from the act of learning calculus.

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Home school university admission policies – freeing or constraining?

My husband Joe and I look at planning differently. I want an all-up-front plan to my day. Before he’s barely opened his eyes in the morning, I want to know what the plan for the day is. Don’t get me wrong, I may not even stick to the plan, but for me, there’s security in having one. For me, a plan means that I have the option of going on autopilot and I can do what I need to do without stopping to think about what’s coming up next. In that way, a plan is extremely freeing. It frees me from making decisions later, although I’m flexible enough that it doesn’t prevent me from doing so.

I won’t go into too much detail describing Joe’s ideas on planning; he does planning for a living, so suffice it to say that he’s very good at it, and his methods probably deserve coverage that is beyond the scope of this little introduction. But in short, Joe’s planning is intertwined throughout his daily activities. Joe doesn’t try to make an ideal plan for the day, or even a full plan for the day. Instead, whatever comes next is dependent upon what’s already happened, relying on past feedback to predict future outcomes. Joe would feel constrained by a plan that’s already proven to be ineffective, off course or impossible by 10:00 a.m., given what has happened since 9:00 a.m.

What does all this have to do with university admissions? Well, no matter what kind of home schooling family you are, if you think your children might be bound for university, you need a plan. No one can wake up one morning and decide that today’s the day you try to get into university. You can be unstructured about schooling but you cannot face the bureaucratic beast that is Ontario’s post-secondary education system unprepared. Certainly our planning is made easier with the freely-available home school admission policies available on the web. But, have these plans freed home schoolers to go about their home-school-through-high-school without fear of the unknown, or have they now constrained our home-school-through-high school options because we will now have them in the back (or front!) of our minds throughout a home-based high school experience?

Home-Schooled Students Rise in Supply and Demand by PAULA WASLEY describes this trend in university admissions in the US, where from 2000 to 2004, the percentage of colleges and universities with an official homeschooling policy rose from about 50% to about 85%. (emphasis added by me to illustrate the key points)

Without traditional points of comparison, like class ranking and grade-point averages, colleges tend to fall back on standardized-test scores. Many require that home-schoolers take two or more SAT 2 subject tests in addition to an SAT or ACT.

As the number of home-schoolers applying to college continues to grow, admissions offices have attempted to streamline the process. The University of Richmond, for example, has one admissions officer assigned to read all applications from home-schoolers. This year the Common Application, a format used by more than 300 colleges, added a supplement for home-schoolers, which both pleases and unsettles some homeschool advocates.

“We’re not fighting to even be considered anymore,” says Howard Richman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency, one of seven organizations in the state that provides accredited diplomas to home-schooled graduates. On the other hand, he says, such standardization may cost home-schoolers some of the individuality that has set them apart.

Bringing home schoolers out into the open and requesting policies from universities has had its pros and cons. From the standpoint of a worried, nervous family, nothing is more assuring than seeing in black and white exactly which steps are needed to fulfill admission requirements. A clear, well-defined home schooling policy is sometimes the most guidance a home-school-through-high-school family has ever seen before!

On the other hand, are home schoolers now finding themselves “boxed in” by the increase in official policies, especially those that are increasingly relying on standardized tests? When there was no policy, there was no black and white. Now that these policies exist, it really means we have to conform to them.

Personally, I think the policies have done more good than harm. Trying to enter university without pre-defined conditions and expectations is a little like avoiding a question that you don’t really want answered. Sure, you can say, “You never told me what you wanted,” but they have every right to respond, “You never asked.”

I recognize that some may view the convergence of admission policies as contributing to the homogenization of an otherwise very diverse group of individuals. Some may see it as unfair that home schooled applicants may be increasingly encouraged to take standardized tests whereas their traditionally-schooled counterparts (here in Ontario) are generally exempt from high-stakes testing, and certainly are at the university entrance level. Of course, we can’t forget that home-school-through-high-school kids have been allowed to ignore provincial curriculum, mandated teaching methods and other such undesirable attributes of a traditionally-schooled education. I’d say it at worst evens out, but more often than not favours the home schooled.

If it wouldn’t normally be your inclination to do so, I’m going to suggest that you try thinking of these policies as I do – as freeing. Free from the worry about what the universities expect from you. Free from the hours spent figuring out how to document your child’s education. Free from the worry that your family’s choice has limited your children’s options. You know what’s expected of you – just plan for it as part of your long-term homeschooling strategy.

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IB vs AP

[International Baccalaureate versus Advanced Placement]

One of my former tutors asked me to describe the similarities and differences between these two secondary programs, so I thought I’d share.

In a nutshell, IB is a whole curriculum leading to the IB diploma and the AP program is individual exams leading to a score for each subject test you write. IB is perhaps better for European/International universities, whereas AP is probably favoured by American universities. Both are recognized in Canada. The IB is a 2 year, comprehensive program including an independent research essay. AP marks are based only on a single big (mostly multiple choice) exam in May. You don’t even have to technically be in a school that teaches AP in order to write the AP test; you just have to find a school at which to write it. To participate in the IB program, you need to be registered an IB school.

Any student can take advantage of the AP exams, including home schoolers, since registration in a particular course is not required. You can prep on your own with AP prep books from the bookstore/library and web resources. There is a school in Oakville, Ontario who welcomes home schoolers who would like to sit examinations on exam day, and they do not require any kind of official enrollment with the school.

Some other comparisons can be found here:

[some broken links removed, new links added Feb 2017]

PDF file on the Lee County Schools site

PDF file on Westerville K-12 (Ohio) site

A more reasonable comparison, therefore, might be made between the SAT II Subject Tests vs. AP exams.

SAT Subject Tests (formerly called SAT II Tests) are the equivalent of high school exit exams wheras AP exams are the equivalent of first year university/college final exams. SAT Subject tests are almost exclusively multiple choice whereas AP exams include multiple choice and full-length (free response) questions. Both are subject-specific, meaning you can take one for history, one for chemistry etc. But, the level of study is different. Writing an SAT Subject Test is like writing a final exam for a 12U course whereas writing an AP exam is like writing a first year university/college final exam.

Both tests can be used for university admissions in Ontario in lieu of a high school diploma. The AP program is considered to be an “advanced” program, not available to all students. So, AP’s will never be required for university entrance. SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, can be written as often and in as many locations as the General SAT Reasoning Test is held, and some schools may require SAT II Subject Tests for admission. (Talk to individual universities to see whether they will allow you to present AP scores instead of SAT Subject Test scores. In Ontario, where none of these tests are required of regular Ontario high school applicants, they likely will let you substitute; they just want to see a mark on some test from a home schooler. In the US however, where these tests are part of the regular admission process, they may not.)

AP exams, because of their advanced academic content, may earn you university credit if you score high enough. SAT Subject Tests will definitely not earn you university credit, but will instead be used to determine 12U subject-specific equivalent knowledge. If a home schooler take the “Top Six” then they will not need to take SAT Subject Tests because this knowledge will already have been evaluated. But, a home schooler may wish to take both the Top Six and AP exams because AP content goes beyond the Ontario Grade 12 curriculum and extends into university-level study.

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