How do homeschoolers get into college?

Homeschooling is a big risk on the part of a parent—it’s going against what society tells us is right to do with our kids – and it can seem even riskier if you think your kid might not be able to go to college.

I’m not saying college is necessary – it’s not. But knowing that your homeschooled kid will have the option to go to college makes homeschooling feel less risky. And the good news is that homeschooled kids make much better candidates for top schools than kids who spend all their time getting good grades in high school. Here’s why:

1. High school is terrorizing students.
High school assumes kids have no idea what they should be learning, when in fact, by that age it’s very clear who is good at what and forced curricula wastes kids time and undermines their confidence.

High school infantilizes students by not giving them choices. It causes social anxiety and unnecessary conflict with parents.

Forcing kids to care about grades at this age makes them crazy. Slate reports that “The average high school student has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient did in 1950s.”

2. Strong high school performance does not get kids into college.
Doing well in high school merely shows that you are able to follow rules and do what you’re told. These are not the traits that make for a standout alumni base, and colleges know that.

No differentiator means no entrance – especially for white girls.

The trend is to abolish SAT requirements because they don’t show a student’s ability to stand out for anything beyond taking a test.

3. Homeschoolers are more able to differentiate themselves.
There is more time for kids to experiment and try out things to figure out what is special about them. What is special about them is what will get them into college. For example:

Learn to play an instrument. Columbia accepts homeschooled musicians with just a GED. This is not uncommon for musicians.

Focus on sports. The trend in kids sports is to take kids out of school so they can focus on the sport. Private teams are much stronger than school teams, and you can travel for year-round training.

Start a company. There are plenty of examples of successful companies launched by high schoolers. A kid who launches four startups and each of them fails is much more attractive to a college than the kid who gets straight A’s at some suburban high school.

Run science experiments. There is not a Westinghouse winner who actually needs to go to high school in order to get into college.

Climbing a wall like the one in the picture up top reminds me how there are easy paths for your kid and hard ones too. At the beginning you tighten the safety gear and give directions. And as they get higher up you sort of scream up to the kid suggestions for what to do, but soon they get too far up to hear you, and then you hope they pick the right route so they get to the top.

But then again, really what you need to do is get the kid off the wall altogether so they have more options.

27 replies
  1. LM
    LM says:

    Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    As a college prof for over a decade, I see more and more homeschooled kids and they are always just amazing. In fact, the kids who are schooled have a tougher transition as they aren’t always used to being in a classroom to learn.

    My oldest just finished applying to about a dozen colleges and each one had homeschooled parts of the applications. It really didn’t seem difficult to include a portfolio or something similar for homeschoolers. She’s not homeschooled, but we’ll be pulling her younger siblings out this year to unschool. Seeing her applications made it a lot easier for my husband to feel confident about our decision for the younger kids.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    About 5 years ago I read a piece in Salon about how kids who don’t need prescription drugs like Adderall are taking them just to survive the school load and still be able to socialize and essentially survive the dance of social rules.

    I thought it was excessive and maybe just something that rich New York kids did.

    But then, I keep reading more and more articles along the same lines and realize that, really, there is just so much pressure for kids to be everything, excel in every aspect of roundedness, that they can’t do it with human strength. So they have to supplement somehow.

    How nuts is that!?

    How can my healthy, emotionally adjusted kid can compete with someone that is taking Adderall to ace tests, form a complicated cheating ring, party it up, and do sports?

    He can’t. I can’t.

    We’d have to find a way to supplement.

    In light of that, just remove the artificial hamster wheel instead.

    • Susan
      Susan says:

      You are fooling yourself if you think the majority of outstanding, high achieving high school students are all doped up on Adderall. Give me a break. My daughter is in the top 2% of her class (out of almost 1000 kids) and she a.)isn’t doped up on meds b.) wouldn’t even remotely know how to form a cheating party c.)runs with a crowd of similarly high achieving kids, none of whom are on meds (and yes I know this for a fact.

      I don’t bash homeschoolers, but don’t for a minute try to make yourself feel better about your choices by assuming all high school students who are doing well have only gotten to that point with meds and cheating and lots of psych stress. She was laying around at 8 last night in her pajamas reading a favorite novel and alternately playing with a new computer coding book she bought. Hardly the picture of high stress !

        • Kim
          Kim says:

          Whether or not they can play the game in high school, doesn’t really matter. I think the point of this article says a lot. Many high achievers in high school often drop out of college. Being able to conform and do the paper work to achieve a well rounded education that school offers doesn’t translate into success at college. It often means failure to solidly develop any particular skill. I think that’s why they call them “majors”. The idea is a rude awakening to school students who have just been taught to follow orders.

  3. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    The end of this post almost made me cry. Thank you PT, for always being that reminder I need that choosing the path less taken makes all the difference.

  4. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Great post—love the rock wall analogy!

    I experienced being unschooled from 2nd grade to community college. CC just gave me a placement test and never asked for high school transcripts or diploma. After my first term, my grades were high enough that I qualified for all sorts of scholarships, so that was nice.
    When I transferred to the state university, they were only interested in my cc grades—never asked a question about high school! I know times have changed and some schools have tightened requirements, but overall, it does seem that doors are opening all over for homeschoolers, because there are now a couple of decades worth of data and experience to prove what great students and citizens they can be!
    ( I was a good student—-am trying to be a “good” citizen now, whatever that means these days—!)

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Good to hear from you Sarah! I love hearing about grown unschoolers, are you still a student?

      • sarah
        sarah says:


        Well, I’m always learning about things that interest me, but TECHNICALLY, I graduated from university over 21 years ago! My family was ‘unschooled’ back in the days when it wasn’t strictly legal! My oldest child is almost 16; he’ll be able to start cc classes in a few months. He wants to take welding, which he can’t do online very well…. :)

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      Our now 16 year old took a community college placement test last spring. He is in his second term of earning a high school diploma (a local school district is funding this bill) while also earning his first two years of an engineering undergraduate degree. He plans to go on to the local engineering university as an 18.5 year old junior. Already he has been offered some excellent scholarship and is looking forward to some internship work with a tool maker or an aerospace company or driving a combine on a farm looking for a smart, mechanically minded guy (still trying to decide).

      He also gets to swim 20-25 hours per week in pursuit of his competitive swimming goals. He worked hard and earned the rank of Eagle Scout doing an engineering, drafting, maunfacturing, machining, welding project for the local parks and rec department – saving them over $16k. He is the master of Minecraft and keeps a core group of folks busy in Defense of the Ancients (gaming stuff). He leads a patrol of 6 young men starting out in Boy Scouts – teaching them the skills they need to be safe, have fun, survive and thrive. He, with his sister and a buddy, started a high adventure Venturing Crew – COPE, Shooting, hunting, SCUBA, trekking, white water rafting, etc.

      He gets to live his life and experience so much fun and joy (and terror). Who has time for traditional school? He is learning real world skills and enjoying his work and so much more desirable to universities it isn’t funny!!

  5. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Oops, hit enter before quoting my favorite parts (but you should read the whole thing, it’s worth it!). It applies so well to this post:

    Successful parenting isn’t about getting our kids to college — it’s about what happens when they come back home. That is the one useful message I took away from “The Return of the Natives”, Jan Hoffman’s New York Times article about distant and disrespectful young adults spending their first college winter breaks with their parents.

    “Your student, who will arrive home a wrung-out, post-finals mess, will be sleep-deprived, laundry-laden and with four to six weeks to drive everyone, themselves included, crazy”, asserts Hoffman.

    She goes on to share discouraging anecdotes of parents who “couldn’t survive 4 weeks” in the company of children they barely recognize (after spending just a few months at college) and quite obviously don’t enjoy.

    How depressing is that?

    The parents profiled in the article seem destined to become the tiresome in-laws, the grandparents whose children and children’s children would prefer to avoid them at holidays, the aging parents to whom their children feel less and less connected. Rather than “absence making the heart grow fonder,” these families have become strangers in just a few short months, which makes one question the quality, authenticity and focus of their 18-year relationship before college. Were they always this miserable together?

    After first wondering “who are these people?” I realized it didn’t really matter. I was more annoyed that the author would portray these scenarios as the norm when they couldn’t be more different from my own experience. Parents of young ones should know: this is not the way it has to be.

    Granted, it’s easy to lose our way when our success-driven society doesn’t encourage (or really even recognize) our number one duty as parents: forging a relationship with our child that is grounded in trust, acceptance and respect. But if we can let go of all other parenting agendas and keep striving for these ideals, my experience says we’ll count the days until our college student returns home, savor the precious time together, and burst with pride and gratitude for the extraordinary child we’ve raised.

    Here are some key ways to foster a positive and lasting parent/child relationship and avoid the situations presented in “The Return of the Natives”:

    1. Stop “doing”and start discovering your child

    “There’s a pervasive attitude in our culture that children can’t do anything unless we show or do it for them. We’re encouraged to interact with our children as if they are our most important projects rather than uniquely gifted, whole people who will mature and evolve in their own way. The well-intentioned meddling that we might believe to be our job only teaches our children deep down that they really don’t satisfy us. The rift and discomfort begins.”

    “…So, instead of working so hard to engineer our child’s development, doubting him or her (and ourselves), we can begin a more rewarding parenting journey by realizing that we do not make our children what they will become — we only facilitate the development of what’s inevitable. Where our power does lie is in ensuring our children feel self-confident and connected to us. Acceptance is the key. Rather than focusing our work on the successful image we might have for our children, we’re advised to take a good long look (around 18 + years’ worth) at the perfectly imperfect child we have and make it our job to appreciate her “as is”.”

    “…It’s a parent’s job to fall crazy in love with his or her child. Not the child you wish you had, or wish you were, or wish you could help your child to be, but like Stephen Stills sang, “the one you’re with.” Then your reunions will be giddy and your child will always want to come home, but won’t really need to…because home will mean you and be forever embedded in your child’s heart.

    Please let me grow as I be,
    And try to understand why I want to grow like me,
    Not like my mother wants to me to be,
    Not like my father hopes I’ll be,
    Or like my teacher thinks I should be,
    Please understand and help me grow
    Just like ME!
    -Magda Gerber

  6. Kay
    Kay says:

    When I saw your heading about high school terrorizing students, I thought you were going to talk about how the teachers and guidance counselors talk about the path to college. Our guidance counselor came to the honors classes to give talks about how our honors classes were not going to be enough, and how few of us were going to into ivy league schools, and how much our lives were going to suck without a college degree.

    I think he was trying to motivate us, but it pissed me off so much that I didn’t even research or apply to any colleges. I was in the top few percent of my class, in terms of GPA, with plenty of talents and interests, and the only reason I ended up applying to the one school I did was because he found me at the end of senior year and specifically recommended a school that sounded halfway interesting.

    Yes, he made it up to me personally, which is great. But I don’t think it makes sense to give kids the impression that the only choices are ivy league or mediocrity.

  7. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    How about the homeschooled violin/piano student who is turning her years of private music education into a business of teaching privately at home as well as contracting with a local music business to teach students there as well, earning $16 an hour in both locations, all while still finishing up her academic requirements for her senior year of high school? That would be my daughter. Nice to know she is meeting two of the suggestions on the list to help her differentiate. She wouldn’t have pursued the teaching had I not seen her ability and encouraged her to take the leap. The real question will be whether or not the colleges place any value on her entrepreneurship. In our state, they are entirely too hung up on the almighty ACT scores.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Stanford university has an admissions page dedicated to homeschooled applicants.

    A portion copied from the site:

    In particular, we would like to hear (in your application) about:

    how and why your family chose home schooling
    how your learning process was organized
    what benefits accrued
    what, if any, choices you had to make to accomplish this type of education

    Good post Penelope, love the links. I love the last sentence.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for copying this into your comment. I’m especially struck by the last question – Stanford wants to know about the choices the kid made. This is so interesting to me because homeschool is a fundamentally subversive and revolutionary decision to make. But it’s the parents who are taking that action, really, not usually the kids. So then Stanford is asking, what is your part in this decision? That’s really interesting to me.


      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        The assumption (correctly) they are making is that most teenaged homeschoolers are in charge of their learning process and outcomes.

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        It may be the parents who initially take this subversive actions but in many homes it is the kids who continue. Some do chose to go to school for a half year, a year, middle school, high school but most homeschool kids (I know) chose to stay home year after year.

      • Julie
        Julie says:

        We included our son, 15, in the decision to bring him back home after two years of public school so that last question would be a good one for a student like him. It was his choice, and he gave up playing in the marching band since our state doesn’t allow home schooled children to participate in school activities. Because he was giving up something he loved, we wanted it to be his decision.

  9. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    It is absolutely the case that top colleges admit some homeschoolers. It is important for homeschoolers to understand though that the bar is set very high. There are many absolutely amazing public and private school students applying too. The typical applicant at top schools is overall so much stronger statistically than they were a generation ago. Homeschoolers who are interested in selective schools should expect to take rigorous core academics in high school. Test scores are weighted much more heavily for homeschoolers than they are for other applicants.

  10. Della
    Della says:

    Hi P,
    You will probably know which “home school mom” I am after I comment on this article (Lol). I home schooled my oldest (19 yr old) since 2nd grade, well, probably jointly taught her since birth; and I still homeschool my 6th grade daughter, 7th grade son, and 9th grade daughter. And my 19 year old daughter graduated from a home school charter and the local junior college (with 3 AA degrees) at the age of 17 and is now going to USF (University of San Francisco). She entered as a Junior and now complains because she was advanced so fast that she doesn’t have the time to just float around for awhile. She was pushed too fast. Though I have supported her taking fun classes, rallied for her to be allowed to stay in a freshman dorm (to get that full first time college student experience-even though we live 40 minutes from SF), supported her in party-going (drove there to encourage her to get involved and stop studying ~ don’t get me wrong this kid has danced all her life on a dance team, gone to proms , and has tons of friends~) and so on; and she has changed her major…adding a year to 2 yr schedule. I also have encouraged the semester in France for her last year. But nothing we do as parents will be truly appreciated …anyway….that’s not why I’m writing (that’s just what her and I are discussing lately, because she wants to change her major again!)…I’m writing, because she was excepted by many colleges and was wooed and now her advisors are so “taken” with her at USF that they have helped her plan her double major, where she will graduate at the age of 20 and go right into their master’s program and finish that at age 22. (So I think she can get her own loans at that age and pick another school and take whatever she wants at that time…I’m done…I have 3 more to get in and out. oh …excuse me!) So home schoolers get in college. And most colleges LOVE homeschoolers!

  11. Della
    Della says:

    Sorry, I was in a ranting mood. It’s very late and I life is really crazy and just got crazier when my daughter asked if I would be mad if she changed her major again ….so sorry.

  12. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    Many US colleges — especially the Ivy League ones, as a commenter noted about Stanford — actively RECRUIT homeschoolers because they find they do better than schooled kids.

    Even the stick-in-the-mud schools (like some of the ones we have here in Canada) are starting to come around. When I was worrying about my kids, 10 years ago, our local university refused to accept homeschoolers. But by the time my kids were 17, they were welcomed and had the option of applying via portfolio, no grades required.

    You are right that having a particular talent/interest — sports, music, science — makes it even easier for homeschoolers to get accepted. My son, who is studying to become an opera singer, simply had to do an audition. He is highly dyslexic and never attended school and the university has worked hard to accommodate all his needs.

  13. Julia
    Julia says:

    Whenever I’m with other homeschooling parents, college comes up. How to get into college and how the BEST colleges — Stanford! Ivy League! — recruit homeschooled kids. Kids with a hook, that is.

    It’s all so depressing.

    This is the very same endgame my friends talk about when they were filling out applications to preschools in manhattan. x is a feeder into y is a feeder into z is a feeder into HYP.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I know what you mean, Julia. It seems like a sadly conventional approach for homeschooling parents to take after taking such a brave initial approach to education.

      But something I realized is that I’m really scared that I’m closing doors for my kids. The reason I homeschool is to open doors that I think conventional education closes. But I sooth my worries that I’ve made a wrong decision by telling myself that all the best colleges are still open to my kids, if that’s what they want.

      I’m not saying it’s a logical way to think, but it’s why I keep coming back to the college thing. I wish I didn’t. I wish I didn’t care.


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