How do homeschoolers get into college?

I am convinced that kids should not go to college. It’s overpriced, it’s nonessential to getting a job, and you are more likely to earn a ton of money if you take unconventional paths.  Not that earning money is the primary goal of  life, but for the amount of money college costs, it should be the primary goal of college.

So, I have written a lot of posts about why I think kids should not go to college. But to be honest, I’m stressed already about how I’m going to get my kids into college, even though homeschoolers are more likely to go to college than non-homeschoolers. So what I’m truly stressed about is how to get my kids into a top college, and how to get a scholarship.

Lisa Nielsen, at The Innovative Educator, has a great post about how to get homeschoolers into college. She quotes an admissions officer from Dartmouth who really inspires me. He says, “The applications from homeschoolers I’ve come across are outstanding. Homeschoolers have a distinct advantage because of the individualized instruction they have received.”

So here’s what I’ve come up with, so far, for how to get a homeschooler into a top college.

1. Live in a terrible school district. 
It makes sense, first of all, to not pay high taxes since you’re not using the schools. But another thing to think about is that colleges actively recruit from school districts that don’t typically send kids to college. College call this managing for geographic diversity.

I could never totally picture how this makes sense until I lived in rural Wisconsin. Most kids never hear about out-of-state schools here, so just sending in an application from our zip code will stand out to a school. Suddenly you go from being an overpopulated demographic (rich, white, girls, for example) to an affirmative-action candidate.

2. Take a year off to study for the SAT.
Top colleges use The Academic Index to determine the strength of each applicant. This index combines numbers that a homeschooler won’t have, like class rank, with SAT scores. Which means that for a homeschooler, SAT scores are super important since it’s one way to compare apples to apples in the applicant pool.

The SAT covers very specific types of questions that you can study for. So, if your kid is driven to get into a top school, the kid can take one year to practice the SAT. Every day. With a tutor. Over and over again. School kids are busy being distracted by English literature and writing papers and eating in the cafeteria. A homeschooler can focus on getting a high score. And, yes, it’s teaching to the test, which we all think is BS, but it’s just one year. That seems okay to me. (And, even if you don’t do this, you’ll be happy to hear that when it comes to the SAT, homeschoolers are scoring higher than kids in regular school.)

3. Play a sport or learn an instrument.
You need a hook
. Especially if you have no demographic oddities, like first-generation to go to college, foreign-born, or, the best: black male.

You need something that makes you stand out. It’ll be great if your kid can win the science fair or get an amazing internship with the person who is solving world hunger. But if you wait until high school to find out if your kid can do that, it’s too late. On the other hand, if your kid is playing a sport or an instrument their whole life, it will be something that makes the kid legitimately different from all the other kids, which is important. And, for a school that needs a middle-hitter or a piccolo player, you will be a good match.

For kids who go to school, a sport or instrument is a huge time commitment and difficult to do. If you don’t go to school, this is just a small part of the day and comparatively non-intrusive.

The thing I’ve really learned from my research is to not worry about my kid getting into college. It’s easy as a homeschooler. But if I want my kid to go to a top college, I need to start planning now.


33 replies
  1. clark
    clark says:

    I don’t know if this still works, but it is pretty slick: “At the time (this may have changed), the ETS tracked your SAT-taking history through your Social Security Number. With this in mind, every time I took the SATs between Sophomore and Junior year, I deliberately wrote my SSN off by one digit. When I finally got the score I wanted (1510 in my case), I called up ETS and raised hell, telling them they screwed up my SSN and demanding that they correct it to my true SSN.” From Quora, here:

    I can’t remember the exact quote, but security guru Bruce Schneier likes to remind us that it is almost always easier to go around the door than to pick the lock. That seems like a very Penelope observation.

    • Katelyn Kramer
      Katelyn Kramer says:

      The SAT is outdated. It’s well-known in the homeschooler community that homeschoolers should take the ACT, not the SAT. It’s far easier to score well on, without nearly as much test-specific preparation, because it tests more to understanding than memorization.

      There is a big misconception that Ivy League schools and the like don’t accept ACT scores in lieu of SAT scores. Not true:

      • Barbara
        Barbara says:

        Research suggests that about a third of the students do better on the SAT, a third of students do better on the ACT and about a third of the students do about the same on each test. My advice for homeschoolers is to take samples of both tests at home and see which one you prefer.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      so you mean that somewhere some poor kid might be stuck with a miserable score in the SAT because you accidentally used his/her SSN number?

    • Crimson Wife
      Crimson Wife says:

      Seriously! If you give your child a good homeschool education, there should be absolutely no need to do more than just a summer of SAT prep. But of course, that would mean things like (GASP!!!!!) using an actual math curriculum like Singapore or Saxon….

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I like this post … and I’d like to add to it.

    First (and foremost), let the kid decide if they are even interested in attending college in the first place. I think they have to have their own motivations for attending college … and I’m not talking about money or because society or anybody else thinks it’s what they should be doing. Plan as if their decision will be to attend college but don’t be too concerned or alarmed if they don’t “aim” for college. There may be a good chance they’ll go to college eventually after a few years in the workforce but they should arrive at the decision to attend on their own.
    Second, regarding the testing strategy for the SAT. It sounds good to me but even before then I would get the kid accustomed to testing and become proficient at it. That way, it won’t be such a “shock” and will make it even easier to master testing techniques.

  3. Lynn Lawrence
    Lynn Lawrence says:

    Much of the content of the SAT requires cumulative study like sports or a musical instrument. Just wanted to point that out, as what’s been discussed here is unschooling, whose definitions are as unique as individuals.

    If you look at the content of the SAT, I don’t think it’s possible to get a top score by simply spending a year after having never covered certain subjects. So, this presumes previous study of Math at least through Geometry, Critical Writing skills and vocab, at minimum. Then, I think a year of study on the test would make a difference.

  4. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I like that you allow yourself some doublespeak in the matter of college. If you only write the articles fall in line with a completely coherent methodology (go to college vs. not), you miss out on appealing to the cognitive dissonance we all have.

    And I don’t think taking a year to focus on taking the SAT’s well is sad, assuming that one will supplement sanity with other things of enjoyment. Learning to exceed on tests, unfortunately, is a life skill that does not go away.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks. I really appreciate that. It’s hard to hold two competing ideas in my head. I appreciate, also, that we can have a discussion about two competing ideas at the same time.


  5. Debt Free Teen
    Debt Free Teen says:

    We used the strategy from The College Hook to formulate a resume. Even though I didn’t have stellar ACT scores and I live in an area that is high competitive (Orange County, CA), I was able to set myself apart and get into every college I applied to including my reach school. It’s more about marketing and less about being the the student with the 4.5 GPA.

  6. MoniqueWS
    MoniqueWS says:

    Ummmm … have you asked the boys what they want to do and spent a year, a month, a week, a day of time fully investigating that desire? Maybe they have an idea of a different path or really no idea at all? :-)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think the big issue is if they don’t have an idea for a different path. There are a bazillion adults who, when told “okay, go make a path for yourself” have no idea what to do. So it seems like a huge leap of faith that a kid will magically come up with a plan to transition to adult life. I can work really hard to make that happen, but I think I also have to work hard to make sure there are doors open if there is no grand plan.

      Mostly, really, I think this post is about wanting to keep doors open for my kids. They don’t need to take the door. I just want to make sure it’s open.


      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        Penelope wrote: “Mostly, really, I think this post is about wanting to keep doors open for my kids. They don’t need to take the door. I just want to make sure it’s open.”


        It shouldn’t be a huge leap of faith especially if we are paying attention to one another.

        For kids I believe the first step to discovering ideas about different paths is discussions with parents, friends, other adults. Day dreaming what ifs. Looking at what they really enjoy now – music, gaming, animal husbandry, etc and delving into the passel of paths teased out of each option/interest. Looking into just what it takes to get from here to there and exploring (since we are on PT’s blog) some outside of the box options for travelling from here to there.

        At this house we also have to have the discussion that we can turn around or jump to a different path if the one we are on now just isn’t fitting/feeling good to us and is it just being uncomfortable with growth and change or is it really not worth pursuing.

  7. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I was a life-long homeschooler that went to a good college at 16. My dad started planning how I would go to college when I was about 12… He had me start studying for and taking the SATs at 13 (and re-taking them once a year), and when I got a good score he leveraged that into me taking a summer science class at a local university. When I was 15 I was very proficient at taking the SAT (got a perfect score) and went to community college for my senior year in high school while applying for 4-year schools. I got a full-ride to a private university (top 20 engineering school).

    I studied for the SAT basically for 3 years, but it’s not like I spent days at a time concentrating on it. I had a bunch of workbooks and flashcards that I would study for maybe 1/2 hour every day, and added subject tests (Physics, Chemistry, American History, Calculus…) to my studying later. It’s constant repetition that builds proficiency for tests like that.

    • Lisa S
      Lisa S says:

      Love this!

      One of the main reasons I homeschool is because I never enjoyed my own years in education where the teachers would ‘teach for the test.’ But just this past weekend, I had a conversation with the parents of a college freshmen, and they told me that had his SAT scores been just a tad bit higher, he would have received thousands more in scholarships from the college. I can’t predict now what my grade school kids will decide about higher education, but this post helps me realize that there are times to ‘play the game.’

  8. lhamo
    lhamo says:

    Get them accepted at a United World College ( They will get to do the IB diploma program (which gets you credit for a full year of college at many elite schools), and will also be eligible for scholarship support and many of those same elite schools from the Davis Foundation. I was lucky enough to have been accepted to the UWC of the Atlantic when I was in high school. That was before the Davis scholarships started, but even so it totally changed my life.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    There’s something else to contemplate other than being accepted into a college or university – graduating. It’s a lot of effort to get in but really the goal is to finish with a degree. When you drop out of college you have incurred debt and not met your goal. I was fortunate enough to have not had that experience.
    As redrock has said previously here, college is not “a good fit” for everyone and many times it’s not even necessary. I really am surprised at myself for writing this here. However this is the conclusion I’ve come to after reading countless articles linked to by Penelope and those found by myself. The “my kid has to go to college to be successful and happy” mindset is ingrained within our society. It’s like a robot or herd mentality. Some professions require college and that’s fine. Just know why you’re going to college and what you’re going to do afterwards. That’s why it’s hard to read an article like this one titled ” Why college students stop short of a degree” – .

  10. redrock
    redrock says:

    The comparisons of college dropout rates among countries is misleading: in many of the countries mentioned in the link the alternative to college is a strong, regulated and accepted apprenticeship system. So, a substantial percentage of students who will attend college here in the US are funneled into this apprenticeship system in other countries. However, many of those who would fare better in an apprenticeship (ranging from bank accountant to car repair) are among those dropping out of the more academically inclined colleges. In my first year chemistry class at University we had a fail-rate for final exams of 50% (in every single one), and an overall dropout rate of about 40% comparing student numbers between 1st and 4th year. Some of them switched majors, some chose apprenticeships, some fell of the face of the earth.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      That’s a good point redrock … and to be honest I wasn’t really concentrating on that portion of the article. However, I do think we could learn a few things from other nations around the world and incorporate those things which are acceptable and work out best for us.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I think I only jumped on this part because it is very rarely considered that education systems differ substantially around the world. I find these difference very interesting, and they often shed light of otherwise very entrenched ideas.

  11. HES
    HES says:

    I think Lisa touched on something that should be a stronger consideration. Community College is a less expensive way to determine if your child is a good fit for a college path. Many states have a guaranteed admission/transfer plan from the Community College to a State School. The private schools are adopting that practice. Community College has many of the same traits of a top level University and in some cases has certification programs that University’s can’t or won’t offer. Animal Husbandry and Viticulture courses come to mind.

  12. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    On the one hand, I agree that college is not necessary for everyone, nor is it always the best way to get where you want to go in relation to careers. On the other hand, when I went off to a selective private liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa (on full scholarship, due to that “geographic diversity” you mentioned), it was the first time in my life where I felt truly at home and surrounded by peers and challenged (by said peers, not necessarily by all of the classes). I would not have traded that experience for anything. Truthfully, I don’t know that I learned that much from my classes, but I could not have had that life experience anywhere else. I grew so much from those 3am hallway conversations about politics, theology, philosophy, relationships, etc. THAT is a different kind of education than we normally talk about, but it is what I want my kids to experience in college.

    Not everything is about where you want your career to go. Sometimes it’s about the experiences we want them to have, and a different type of education. I’d love to say that we could provide this in homeschooling, but as a general rule, I found I couldn’t. (See your own posts on finding good fits for homeschool friends) And then the game becomes not so much “get them into the best college with a good scholarship”, but get them into the college that FITS who they are as a person, that will challenge them in the best ways, that provides that environment I described, and will want them enough to offer the scholarships.

    For a thorough education in the myriad ways to get homeschoolers into college, look at hs2coll at yahoogroups. Not only have I learned an incredible amount (because as a homeschooler, you are not just the teacher and the parent and the principal, but also the guidance counselor), but I’ve learned a lot about the different paths that homeschoolers take and the different goals. Not everyone has the same goal I have, and so some are picking huge universities with great research departments. Just don’t get stressed out by the ones whose kids have interned with NASA in high school, taken 25 college classes before even applying, etc. Each kid has their own path and destination.

  13. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    You mentioned the idea of getting into a “top” college and I’m wondering how you define that. What I see is that homeschoolers are pretty unique individuals. There really isn’t a single “top” choice that makes sense for everybody. Homeschoolers who enjoy the flexibility and freedom of homeschooling develop in ways that make them genuinely interesting people who tend to do well both in college admissions and in life. Yes, it is a good idea for families who are homeschooling high school to pay some attention to keeping options open, but there are lots of ways to do that without cramming for the SATs for a year.

  14. Crimson Wife
    Crimson Wife says:

    You are sadly mistaken if you think that playing a sport or an instrument makes your child unique. The overwhelming majority of applicants to top schools do sports and/or music, but only a tiny fraction of those compete at a high enough level to get into college as an athlete or musician. Unless the child is nationally ranked, it’s not going to do anything to distinguish him/her from the crowd.

    Get yourself a copy of Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’ “What High Schools Won’t Tell You” and start looking for some more unusual “hooks” for college.

  15. K-Man
    K-Man says:

    Great post. I have one little quibble.

    You repeat the HSLDA’s claim that “homeschoolers are more likely to go to college than non-homeschoolers”. Of course that organization would make that claim. The problem is that it seems not to be true by a long shot. Many of the homeschool organizations’ claims are highly suspect.

    Based on extensive searches online and my attempts to confirm and reconcile disparate numbers, I have found the following:

    1. Well over 25% of public high school graduates, depending on jurisdiction (in some wealthy areas it is over 50%), take the SAT/ACT. Taking this test is considered an excellent marker for plans to go to university for obvious reasons, as virtually every credentialed college or university requires one or the other. The comparable figure for homeschooled students as a group appears to be no more than 10%, and possibly less.

    2. Supposedly 2–3% of all students are homeschooled; some recent estimates now say 4%. So you would expect that 2–3% of those taking the SAT or ACT are likewise homeschooled. The actual figure when the SAT people released breakdowns based on student self-identification several years ago was 0.5%, or about a quarter of the 2% expected figure. More recent breakdowns have become very difficult to obtain because the categories have since changed.

    The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. But massive anecdotal evidence from all over the Internet and from public school teachers paints a disturbing picture of a large underbelly of poorly performing homeschoolers largely ignored by the media. (The spelling bee winners are anecdotes too, I might add, and spelling and geography bees are trivia contests anyway.) We’re talking about “homeschooled” kids in their teens who cannot read and the like, in addition to the numerous cases of actual abuse and neglect involving “homeschoolers” that regularly surface.

    The stereotype of fundamentalist Christian parents keeping their kids out of school to indoctrinate them about how evil everyone else who has a different viewpoint is seems to have a very hard kernel of truth, and these kids are certainly not likely to go to college—except maybe an unaccredited Bible–based one that does not require high SAT scores or anything else besides money.

    Teachers have said that in their experience homeschooled students coming into public schools for high school are almost invariably 2–3 years behind their peers. My brother’s ex-wife is a school administrator who taught in three different states and said that this was her personal experience in all three states. Her district had to adopt special procedures for such students to enter the school system for that reason.

    The oft-heard statement that elite universities actively seek out homeschoolers is false. Yale is reported to be “hostile” on some homeschooler forums. Princeton admissions reps have said that the university actually sees only a few such applicants, and the numbers of homeschooled in each class are in the single digits or low teens.

    Upshot: beware of all the hoopla about how well homeschoolers supposedly do.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:


      First – you begin your argument camplaining we can not back up our assertions and the HSLDA (and all HS orgnaizations) is a suspect source then you make an assertion about SAT/ACT participation rates are an excellent marker for college participation and show/share no real evidence beyond your Google Fu skills.

      I live a town with the highest number of PhDs per capita than any other town in my state. We also have a VERY high percentage of homeschoolers. Many of these homeschoolers do not register. Many states do not require registration. There are some homeschoolers for religious reasons but in my world that is more of the exception rather than the rule. I also attend (and have for over 10 years) most of the HS conferences (including the Christian conferences) in two western states for my book business. I would say I see more secular HSers than religious Hsers. I strongly believe the number of HSers is tipping from religious/faith based HSers to secular HSers.

      The number of HSers is growing all the time (whether they register or not). The number is Protective Services issues in this population is far smaller than the general population. Your ideas about the Hsers being a (small) pool of families with issues is akin to saying air travel isn’t safe because of the fantastic news you read/watch.

      My 15 year old is currently attending community college. He did not need to take the SAT or ACT. We paid $30 to have him tested through the community college and he got to skip the basic Freshman English, History, and was placed in Differential Equations level math. He has taken some very interesting Physics coursework online and may test out of that too. Entering university should not be difficult for him when and if he chooses to do so. MANY HSers enter university via this or a similar route. My goodness even my state provides public high school students the opportunity to enter community college for Sophomore/Junior/Senior coursework to complete their diploma *and* earn an associate’s degree or a start on college coursework. This is PAID FOR by the school districts.

      You find public school teachers (and a family member to boot) to be more creditable than homeschool organizations? Please tell me what homeschoolers have to gain by lying? We are not defending our policies, taxes, negotiated benefits, retirement, or pay. Homeschool children do NOT need to be performing to the lowest common denominator of public school standards. They do not have to endure a ratio of one teacher to 30-40+ students. Learning for homeshcoolers is often NOT based on the banking model of education but rather developing critical thinking skills and the ability to locate the mentors/teachers and learn the information when you need the information.

      2/3 of students who can not read proficiently by the end of 4th grad will end up in jail or on welfare. 78% will not catch up BECAUSE there are 30-40+ students in a room with one adult! At one time in Oregon (and many states) they looked at the reading proficiency of third graders to PLAN THEIR PRISON BEDS in 10 years. Apparently it was more cost effective to plan prison beds than help children learn to read.

      My own Google Fu on *homeschool students recruited by universities* brings up many, many URLs (not HS organization related) about HSers being recruited by universities.

      NY Times has a blog of questions and answers from 2008 utilizing a panel of admissions deans from Yale University, Pomona College, Lawrence University and the University of Texas at Austin. Here: Over and overthey say it is more challenging to judge the applications of homeschoolers who may only have their parents’ say so. 2008 is a long time ago. No student should expect their application to be accepted solely on their parents’ critique.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      Too many links in one post so I’ll just share one of my last points here. Public schools have a HORRENDOUS drop out rate. They also have many ways to hide that drop out rate. This is a news article from my state:

      Many of the high schools here also post every Senior’s name on a wall with the university they will be attending. NOT EVERYONE SHOULD OR WANTS TO GO TO UNIVERSITY! What about the kids who want to try the world out first, or join the military or start a business, or learn a trade or ??? Not everyone is going to have a (too expensive) degree and get a white collar job that is immune from being sent overseas . Someone has to fix the cars, build, weld, machine, run wire, dig ditches, pave streets, plumb, fix the mistakes from the engineering mishaps in China and elsewhere.

  16. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Kman, interesting post, but I don’t think your sweeping conclusions are well supported by the data.

    Kman: “1. Well over 25% of public high school graduates, depending on jurisdiction (in some wealthy areas it is over 50%), take the SAT/ACT. Taking this test is considered an excellent marker for plans to go to university for obvious reasons, as virtually every credentialed college or university requires one or the other. ”

    It is worth noting that in eight states ALL public high school students are required to take the ACT. That includes many students who have no interest in attending college and students who may drop out of high school. Many students who are not college bound take the ACT or SAT.

    43% of students who attend college in the U.S. attend community college. Policies vary, but the majority of community colleges do not require ACT or SAT scores for admissions. In other words, I would not draw conclusions about college intent based solely on looking at how common it is for students to take the ACT or SAT.

    We really don’t have great numbers on how many students homeschool high school. My guess is if we had accurate numbers what we’d see is that we have a higher percentage of 2nd graders homeschooling than we do 11th graders. At least anecdotal that’s what many of us who have been involved in homeschooling for many years have observed. The thinning of the homeschooling population as kids age is for a wide variety of reasons everything from kids being more able to fit into traditional education as they age to kids desiring traditional high school for sports or other activities.

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