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College Application Overview for Homeschoolers: Recommendations

In the first part of this series, I outlined the five major components of the homeschooler’s college application. We’ve looked at both the official transcript and the school profile; now it’s time to examine recommendations.

Colleges ask for recommendations for obvious reasons – they want to hear about your strengths and weaknesses from those who know you in an academic setting. Schools have varying requirements on recs; some require one math/science, one social studies/English, one of your choice, while others give you the freedom to choose. It’s important to check with a college’s admissions office or website to determine with certainty which particular recommendations they ask for. You can always give them a call and ask how those requirements apply to a homeschooled applicant.

The homeschooler faces a few main challenges with recommendations:

Lack of teachers. Relative to a public school student who has had upwards of 20 different high school teachers by the time they apply to college, a homeschooled student may have just one or two teachers.

Sincerity. A homeschooled student has to contend with a parent recommendation being seen as a “note from Mom” that may be biased.

Non-traditional language. Admissions officers are often taught to focus on key phrases from teachers who have had hundreds of students, such as, “one of the best students I have ever taught,” or “in the top 10%.” These phrases don’t apply to a homeschooled student.

As with the other parts of the application, these hurdles can be turned easily into opportunities to strengthen your child’s candidacy.

You can and should:

Be honest. Be honest, be honest, be honest. Your child has strengths and weaknesses; take advantage of your insight as both an educator and parent and give them both. You’ve got a unique perspective – take advantage of that in a way that demonstrates sincerity and adds value to the application.

No one is perfect and no one is perfectly awful. A good, honest recommendation recognizes this. Maybe your child is a better ‘starter’ than a ‘finisher.’ Maybe he too often tackles projects that are too large. Whatever it is, be honest about it – and usually you can present these difficulties in a way that doesn’t reflect negatively on your child.

Be specific. You’re intimately familiar with your child and his curriculum, so you can add detail that describes your child’s abilities and accomplishments to a higher degree than most recommendations.

Consider the following two sample portions of a recommendation.

From a public school teacher: “Rebecca was one of the most interested students during the poetry unit. Although it is one of the more challenging units in our Honors English class, she was able to handle the material and led classroom discussion on most days. I have no doubt that she will be able to handle the challenging curriculum required for an English major.”

Compare that to a homeschool parent/teacher: ““Rebecca has a keen interest in Emily Dickinson’s poetry and has passionately explored Dickinson’s works. Rebecca has exceeded all expectations, reading two additional books not required by her curriculum as well as corresponding with a local college literature professor for further Dickinson analysis. Her commitment and dedication to literature will serve her well as an English Major in college.”

The public school teacher knows Rebecca’s abilities and judges her favorably, but she’s presented within the context of her class. Unfortunately for Rebecca, her class isn’t applying to college – she is.

The homeschool parent/teacher is able to describe very specific achievements and gauge her dedication in a way that the average teacher wouldn’t be able to do with believable authority. Make these details a strength of your recommendation.

Find a community member or outside instructor who has observed your student’s intellectual capabilities or mastery of a challenging situation and ask them to write a recommendation. It is imperative to find additional support for the admissions application outside of the family constructs. If these interactions and relationships aren’t already built into your curricula, put them in.

You want a recommendation that is specific, honest and relevant – just like yours – that can build on or support your child’s application. That means the recommendation has to say more than, “Will is a good, smart kid and I like him.” Rich recommendations come from real relationships. Think about the relationships your child has [or needs to have] and decide accordingly.

In summary: Be honest, be specific and find others who can do the same.

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2 Responses to “College Application Overview for Homeschoolers: Recommendations”

  1. Ryan says:

    I would add, too, that for those who are choosing to use an online, virtual academy as a pathway to homeschooling–make sure you check the transcripts before they get sent on to the colleges that you’re applying for. In the public school I work at we often have kids come in who previously attended a virtual academy, and the records that follow them have a nasty habit of being difficult to understand, especially if they don’t use a familiar grading scale. Sometimes the shorthand they use to describe a class, combined with an odd vernacular of grading, makes the whole document read like a foreign language.

  2. Matthew says:

    Ryan,

    Thanks – that’s an excellent point. With any part of an application, traditional or not, you should review the documents as if you were an admissions committee. Do they make sense? Is the meaning clear? If not, what can you do to make understanding them easier?

    Admissions committees don’t want to decode anything – they don’t have the time. There’s no shame in writing a brief note to go with a document that helps an evaluator understand the information.

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