How my unschooled son got into college

This is a guest post from Daphne Gray-Grant. She is a writing and publication coach. 

We started homeschooling our three kids because I’d hated school as a child. I wanted to give them a better life and I knew that had nothing to do with the public school down the street. Or with sitting at the kitchen table supervising math and English workbooks.

We embraced unschooling and soon discovered that our son, Duncan, was dyslexic,  dysgraphic  and gifted  — a surprisingly common combination. But he excelled at technology and playing the piano by ear and I developed the notion that somehow, he’d eventually get a career in music production.

Was I ever wrong.

His interest in piano steered Duncan toward voice lessons when he was 16. About a year later the voice teacher called me. “I think your son should try out for the opera program at UBC,”  he said, referring to our local college, the University of BC  in Vancouver.

After recovering from the shock that my son had been secretly singing opera, I reminded the teacher that Duncan had never attended school. And that this particular university didn’t accept homeschoolers. “Still, give it a shot,” the voice teacher urged. So we did. And here are five lessons I learned:

1. Rules change all the time.
I started working my contacts at the school of music. One of the professors I knew mentioned other homeschooled students. Knowing that UBC didn’t accept homeschoolers (I’d researched this when my kids were 10) I assumed these were students who had homeschooled in the early grades before capitulating to brick- and-mortar high schools. 
But as Isaac Asimov  said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

After a couple of weeks of miscommunication, I finally understood that UBC had changed its policy. It now accepted homeschoolers, if not exactly recruited them. (Their attitude is a bit different from many US colleges, notably some Ivy League ones, that actively seek homeschooled students.)

2. The rules may depend on the individual faculty.
At UBC, each faculty has the right to accept or deny homeschooled students by whatever criteria they wish. I took this as good news. The smaller the bureaucracy, the easier to sway. The opera program required a series of short questions (no essays, phew!), two letters of reference from other musicians, and an audition.

My son is a world-class procrastinator so I asked his sister, who was applying to the same university at the same time, to send us the questions in a Word document. I helped my son anguish each of five 250-word questions with the care of mother monkey grooming her young ones for nits.

Then, when my son went to submit his answers, the website wouldn’t accept it. A frantic call to the admissions office later, we learned that each faculty has its own form. We had been working on the one for Science rather than Music. Moral: don’t leave things to the last minute. Thank goodness we had one more day to answer the right questions.

3. You’ll likely be asked for a portfolio.
To make up for his absence of marks, my son also had to submit a portfolio. This was a problem because Duncan had completed almost no “real” school work. Instead, he’d done lots of music lessons, some significant reading tutoring for his dyslexia, and a host of short-term paid and volunteer jobs mostly relating to computers.

“I know, mom,” he said. “I should treat it like a job application and get a bunch of reference letters. That can be my portfolio.” I had to admit it was a brilliant idea. He made 21 enquires and received 21 glowing letters. His portfolio made him sound like a rock star.

4. You may have to do an interview. Be prepared.
In my son’s case, the interview was an audition. He had to prepare five songs and the panel was required to listen to only two of them, but could ask for more if they liked what they heard. My son spent more than six weeks practicing with his voice teacher and his accompanist. He threw in one popular song — Pretty Women from Sweeney Todd — just to show he was an unschooler who didn’t follow rules. The panel asked him for four songs (including the Sweeney Todd), which amounted to a guarantee of admission.

5. Every school is different; every student unique.
You may assume that my story has little relevance for you. After all wasn’t my son terrifically talented? And isn’t music different from, say, science? Or history? Or English Lit?

But here’s the deal: if your unschooled kid is passionate about something and if you’re able to help him or her research college options, get practical experience in the field and provide general support, some avenue will open up to you. You can’t predict exactly what it will be but I know that diligence is the mother of luck.

As a result of getting into UBC, Duncan performed in an opera in the Czech Republic this summer. More amazing to me — because I’m a professional writer and coach —  he wrote a blog about the experience. His spelling and grammatical errors make me wince, but I’m proud he has an engaging written voice and the guts to use it.

Duncan enters his third year of university in September and hopes to do a master’s degree in voice at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.  I can’t imagine anyone will ever ask him where he “did” high school. But if they do, he won’t hesitate to say he was unschooled.


40 replies
  1. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Thanks Daphne I really enjoyed your post. I live in the UK & whenever the issue of homeschooling comes up the question of whether it’s possible to attend university on a a homeschooled education is usually raised. Thanks for sharing what your family learnt its invaluable to the rest of us. And congratulations to your son, by learning a trade in his passion he has saved himself alot if heartache regret and boredom especially as he starts out on the beginning of his career path

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    It’s hard for me to shoot for a path in life that is “successful” at the expense of sacrificing happiness (free/fun time with family).

    Probably because I’ve never had that but I have had a tight knit family and good days and amazing days (all in one week. Enough to give you whiplash.).

    Reading about kids getting into college even after unschooling – or because of it, is not an incentive to me. I figure that if my kids decide college is the tool they want to use to move towards their life goal then they can figure it out. I’ll help with everything in my power. I like to make things happen and I like to help people realize their needs/wants when I see them working hard towards it.

    What strike me about this post is that the kid is getting a masters in voice.

    If you go to public school (even elite private schools) there’s a theme, a message, that you better get into college for some sort of degree that will directly translate into employability and lots of money. Otherwise the education is a waste.

    I only know one woman in person who went on to get a masters in music. I was blown away. She’s not an aristocrat. She’s a regular person who followed her passion. She doesn’t even come from a musical family.

    Normally, unless you come from such a financially solid background, the study of music and art is seen as wasteful. It’s for the elite.

    But here’s how unschooling chucks the trend. The kid was passionate about it. Despite his neurological challenges he went on to do what is normally reserved for the wealthy 10% and is continuing in an incredible life adventure.

    Vienna. Wow. I can only hope to one day hop around the globe enjoying all the beauty and diversity of our world.

    Like I said, unschooling is my way to break down the barriers that regular education puts on people. It’s not stories of amassed wealth, glamorous jobs, or getting into college that are an incentive to unschool. It’s the stories of people breaking out of the mold, getting around the ladder, and living a life of adventure that otherwise would be out of their reach.

    Really, an all around middle-finger to the current system and being at least just as happy, healthy, and well adjusted without having to go through the grinder.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant
      Daphne Gray-Grant says:

      We’ve had many people express surprise for our “support” (emotional/psychological, not financial) for our son in terms of his choice of music as a career. Many parents, apparently, try to talk their kids out of it. This boggles my mind. OF COURSE every child should be supported in his/her choices. Selecting “music” as a career should not be limited to the wealthy.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I think it’s because of the indoctrination of the system: invest in education just so you can get wealth/big job out of it. Otherwise education is a waste.

        I think that’s what unschooling breaks for me. It breaks the idea that investing in education is a waste unless you get a specific something out of it (mainly money).

        My background is one of poverty. It haunted me for so long. Once I became pretty confident in my own ability to get ahead I became nothing but appreciative of the fact that when you’ve been at the bottom you’re not afraid of anything.

        I think that even if it got so ridiculously hard to have a good life in the US (meaning, affording to live a good life without having to sacrifice one’s own health immensely) my first thought is “I don’t have to live in this country.”

        Which is not how I used to think before getting used to the idea of unschooling.

        I am so excited for your son!

        He seems to really be living an adventure. I hope he finds nothing but open doors!

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      Having been someone that initially went to school for a music degree, know many musician graduates, some that work in the field and some that do not, I have to completely disagree with your assessment that it is generally reserved for the wealthy.

      My friends work for record labels, hospitals (music therapists), artist management, touring, production, entertainment and performance. Many who finished music degrees work in fields other than music, but the degree opened the door.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I am not saying it’s solely reserved for the wealthy. Like, “there are no exceptions! must be wealthy to study music!”

        But normally you won’t see people who have to worry about making ends meet and providing for a family go into a master’s level study for anything music related. Because of the need to ensure that you’re employable.

        At the same time, I love your post because it changes my perspective. There are people out there merging their love with practical application (not that making music is not practical).

  3. Brynn
    Brynn says:

    I think my issue with this sort of mentality is that just because you can have one door open, and somehow walk through it, that doesn’t make it a good fit.

    I was an unschooled high school student. I understand unschooling. However, I also understand that one university will not necessarily fit every kid just because they can get in. For that reason, even an unschooled student needs a transcript. They need paperwork. It isn’t even that hard to do. If you do not teach your student, regardless of the homeschooling style, how to jump through societal hoops you are doing them a great disservice. They will be forced to settle for who will let them be allowed in, rather than who they necessarily want to work with.

  4. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    This made me cry. Beautiful to see a child find their way-not someone elses way.

    I bet it will be an unschooler who finds the cure for cancer.

    I homeschooled my kids but I wasn’t an unschooler. I wasn’t confident enough then but if I could do it again-you bet that’s where I’d go!

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I really believe that unschooled kids will be able to get into college, if they wish to attend, much like regular homeschoolers do. You may have to hire someone to put together a transcript based on what you’ve done, and maybe you will need to be more organized as far as administrative tasks go during the high school years.

    But I don’t believe anything will prevent an unschooler from getting into college. The question is, will they want to go? Especially if they have a niche skill with employers actively seeking them regardless of a college degree.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think some unschoolers will want to go the way that sometimes I want to live in a retirement home haha! (they have everything already scheduled for you and it takes the decision making out of the way).

      Going to a school provides structure, a beautiful campus (most of the time) a pool of people ready to pick from to befriend, etc.

      This is heaven for some personalities and it’s hell and constricting for others.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        haha true!

        Who would’ve thought that if you put a bunch of young people, lots of booze, and zero consequences for crime because the institution’s reputation is more valuable you’d get a rape problem!?

        I feel like at this point I’d want to talk my child out of college unless it was a path that he absolutely needed or benefited from. But like, really really really the down sides are way overshadowed by the good.

  6. Ana
    Ana says:

    His mom did everything for him! If his mom hadn’t applied and called and all that stuff, he would have never gotten in. I am not gifted and I was not homeschooled, and yet I was

    • Jessica
      Jessica says:

      I’m all for helping when it’s needed, but this does read as a teenager that had his mom do everything for him. He just showed up. I could understand if this person was younger. but by the late teenage years I’m surprised at the behavior.

      • Suzy
        Suzy says:

        His mom helped him, but he solicited the letters of recommendation (and obviously earned the glowing letters people were willing to write about HIM, not his mom). Applying to schools is more complicated than it was 25 years ago, when I did it without assistance.

        I know plenty of my private college classmates who scored prestigious internships, jobs, etc. because of their parents’ professional connections. I see nothing wrong with the mother helping her son. Not to mention the fact that the son was solicited by a program because of HIS talent.

        • karelys
          karelys says:


          It was the kid who opened a door. His own skills weren’t enough to get him through the paperwork but he was driven and he came up with the idea of the letters when his own mom was stumped!

          How is it different than hiring someone to do something you just can’t do?

          Even now, I want to do something (I am neurotypical) and I ran into a wall. So I break up the work. My husband does the part that I could figure out on my own by trial and error, or that makes me so angsty to do (normally it has to do with little details).

          I feel like people are choosing to not really read the story and nit pick. Are they jealous? Doesn’t it sound like it?

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Sounds like jealousy. Seriously, throw the gifted word around and people become belligerent in their conversation.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I don’t think it is jealousy – I think it is the contrast between the “unschooling makes kids incredibly independent and much better able to navigate the world and advocate for themselves” and the story which shows a mother helping her son in nearly all aspects of the application process.

          • Commenter
            Commenter says:

            Perhaps the fly-by commenters dumped on him because they missed the part where Mrs. Gray-Grant said her son is dysgraphic and dyslexic.

            It’s the one time in his entire life he’ll have to do significant writing. Of course he needed help with it.

            I hope I get to hear him sing some day. Good job, mom.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Exactly Suzy! I completely agree with you. I’m sorry if others didn’t have much help from their parents, but I’m honestly going to do whatever I need to do to help my own child be successful in life. Leaving a young teen to do this without any assistance seems cruel.

          Helping with administrative tasks for your kid is completely appropriate. He did the interview and had the talent to get accepted. Her function was purely administrative and shows what a wonderful mother she is.

          • Daphne Gray-Grant
            Daphne Gray-Grant says:

            Yes, I definitely did not sing. If I had, they might have excluded my son from the program! Seriously, though, I found all my kids (they are triplets) needed way more help between the ages of 16 and 18 than they did between the ages of 6 and 8. This makes sense to me because it’s a big transition time. They’re all doing very different things and they all needed completely different types of help. Unschooling doesn’t mean ignoring kids. It means ignoring the system that says you can only do things in one very limited way.

  7. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I did think there was a certain irony to it, that in the beginning it talks about homeschooling to avoid sitting at the kitchen table supervising math and English workbooks, yet later in the post the mom is closely supervising the essay writing & whole application process.

    I guess parental involvement transcends the schooling method.

  8. Susan
    Susan says:

    I can really relate to the “shake the tree” analogy quoted above, I think that best summarizes my outlook on life – if you want it, you can make it happen. Where it gets fuzzy for me is when kids want something specific and have to jump through certain hoops to get there – they need to be adequately prepared to do so. My 17 year old daughter is a talented dog trainer and wants to train service dogs as a career. Great, I say, let’s work toward that!

    Last year she was taking AP World History (her choice) with some friends and drowning in the workload, while training a very difficult dog. I encourage her to drop the AP part of the course and just take World History as a general pass/fail, because working through the challenges of the dog would benefit her much more than AP history credit.

    As it turns out, all of the service dog schools she’s interested in working at require some kind of college degree, even for entry level jobs. So she’s decided to get an Associates in Applied Science (Vet Tech) and to do that, she needs a high school chemistry class (which she’s taking now).

    Had she not researched it and found out what she needed to get where she wants to go, I wouldn’t have forced her to take chemistry (and she wouldn’t have chosen it on her own). Do I feel a little bit strong-armed by “the system?” Yeah, a little bit, but that’s fine. Organizations can set their own entry requirements and I can choose whether or not I want to work there.

    If she doesn’t take chemistry she can’t apply to her program of choice, and if she doesn’t get at least an Associates she can’t apply to the service dog schools she wants to work for. No amount of tree-shaking on either of our parts would change that. She’s got the dog training skills and continues to develop them, she just needs to meet the other employment requirements.

    In our case, I’m glad I encouraged her to research options and requirements early enough to get her the courses she needs. I’m not a fan of the college-at-all-costs mentality, and I don’t subscribe to the traditional high school curricula. But knowing where she’s going and what she needs to get there seems like a better use of our time and energy rather than shaking trees for fruit that may or may not fall.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I think tree shaking can look many different ways.

      For example, dropping the history class in favor of funneling energies toward the dog training.

      It’s amazing that she’s so focused on what she wants. Like, specialization type of focus!! She sounds like a brilliant young woman who’s not afraid to put in the work for what she wants!

      When I look at your story I don’t see you guys being strong armed by the system. You play the system and sometimes you go through its requirements just like everyone else if it serves you well but you refuse to play the game if it doesn’t. Most parents and kids would just focus on getting through the AP class and would focus on the grades. For what? I guess that’s the thing you do.

      But even accepting to fail a class (short term) in favor of focusing on training a very difficult dog (long term goal) is shaking the tree and not subscribing to what’s in front of you just because. She’s only 17 and admire what she’s doing.

      I am not sure where you live and if this is a possibility. Perhaps instead of taking AP classes that are more difficult she could take college classes (full or part-time). Most high school kids and homeschooled kids are allowed to do so for free at their community colleges. That way, she has less work to go through (and time) after she’s done with high school to finish an AA degree as the bare requirement and move on to what makes her excited. That’s what I would do. But then again I don’t know the full story.

      Keep coming back and keep us updated on your daughter!

      • susan
        susan says:

        Karelys, she’s dually-enrolled as a homeschooled high school senior and a college freshman. She’s taking a humanities class (an elective for the program she hopes to enroll in next year) at the college and a high school chemistry class, and that’s it. Otherwise she works 2 days a week as a vet assistant and she’s very involved in service dog training with a volunteer organization. By all accounts it’s a very light academic load but we’re totally fine with it – the real life experience she’s getting far supersedes the academics!

  9. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    This post was awesome. Carrying its ideas a few levels higher…

    I would love to see a homeschool student apply to, say, the 500 most desirable schools in America, track which hoops each school made you jump through to be considered, and consolidate the patterns into a book that helps homeschoolers crack the code.

    Once parents had black-and-white evidence of how totally doable college is, I bet a lot of those who are “on the fence” about homeschooling would resolve their ambivalence and jump in with both feet.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      We would have to crowd fund the endeavor because the application cost alone…!

      Unless the kid takes it as an investment and then gets some sort of public speaker deal or book or website or something out of it.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      By the time our young kids are college age this homeschooled kid thing will be the norm, also college will have changed quite a bit from nowadays standards, so while it might be useful just before the curve it will be common knowledge soon.

      Applying to the top 500 schools is unreasonable for 1 person. It would have to be several students contributing data. That said, I’m sure there are basic requirements meant to be provided like any other applicant and a portfolio is a must (I was surprised that the author didn’t for-see this- even many work placements require a portfolio of sorts). Applying for music and arts spots **always** require an audition and or review regardless of if you are HS or not. This, again, is not surprising.

      Keeping a written record of learnings and milestones as well as pursuits throughout the years seems obvious, this tends to happen more and more with the kids online using their networks (tumblr, pinterest, kahn academy, and the such)and storing their data by default.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        In preparation, I called potential colleges in my child’s “9th grade” year to ask their requirements for homeschoolers without a transcript. The most common requirement was a narrative from both parent and student of what was learned throughout the high school years and how homeschooling enabled learning. I don’t remember a portfolio request.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      How do “adults” get into college? Considering that their transcripts, SAT scores, etc. might be out of date or non-existent.

      Wouldn’t they follow a similar path to that of an unschooled youngster?

      I don’t know if we have to make some poor kid go through the torture of 500 college applications. My brain hurts just thinking about it.

      • Jay Cross
        Jay Cross says:

        I pulled the number 500 out of the air. It’s a detail, it doesn’t matter. The overarching concept is it would be cool to know what the patterns were.

  10. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    While we are a few years away from university, I love this post! The idea to get reference letters to use as a portfolio was brilliant. I have two children with dyslexia/ dysgraphia and gifted as well. I hope I remember these ideas when the time comes! Thank you for sharing your son’s story.

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