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?

Want to tell some folks about this post?