What I learned about homeschooling from applying to college

I know I bet my whole reputation on homeschooling. How many times did I tell people they DON’T HAVE TO FUCKING TEACH MATH TO THEIR THIRD GRADER? And how many arguments did we have on this blog about whether or not you have to learn grammar? Here are all the three big homeschooling arguments I win:

1. You don’t need to teach your kid anything academic until 7th grade.

2. You need to find the thing your kid loves — academic or not academic — and they need to be great at it. That means you need to start looking at age three so you don’t miss the cutoff.

3. You can let your kids play video games all the time. They get really sick of them.

Before I tell you what I messed up on, I want to tell you a story. Recently I wrote a post titled Gender fluidity and Autism open gates of power for women. The topic is controversial and I thought I’d get pushback. I wanted to have a conversation about it so I linked to all the research behind my thinking so people could click through, read it, and then argue with me.

It’s actually an accumulation of years of research. One link is actually to a book that explains how deep in women’s DNA it is to care about people close to them. For example, women kill people in their home because that’s who they care deeply about. They almost never kill people outside the home. Men kill people outside the home to get something from them. Women almost never do that – they don’t care.

Another really cool piece of research is that neurotypical women and children say um as a verbal filler but Autistic women and men say uh. That’s cool, right? There are a million links in that post that are so cool. And I checked to make sure I wrote about them accurately and that everything fit together in my argument properly, etcetera.

I had a couple of flippant remarks about how people can recognize Autism in men but not women. They recognize it in Albert Einstein — terrible guy, couldn’t get married, couldn’t comb his hair. But women are more nuanced.

Einstein was married twice. He was a terrible husband.

Okay. Fine. Not a key part of my argument. Actually an irrelevant part. So I didn’t check it. I didn’t have a link. It was a throwaway. So I wasn’t careful. THE FIRST THREE COMMENTS WERE ABOUT ALBERT EINSTEIN BEING MARRIED. I couldn’t take it. I started changing the time stamps on comments.

Okay. So. Back to college applications.

We were doing great with the whole college thing. To be honest, college applications play to my strengths because schools reward kids who do projects they invented themselves and they reward working independently and also, there’s a lot of essay writing to cap it off. To be honest, my son’s not great at working independently, but he’s great at working on projects I dream up. So he did really cool research. Like, even I was impressed.

I told him about how he should leverage his male right to give himself accolades for his own research and then I did it for him. That was right before Covid. Right before the SAT was canceled.

To say he is a good test taker is an understatement. I worry it will be the thing he is best at in his whole life. We have had a lot of tutors who that is true for. Boston is overflowing with kids like that. So you can imagine that the canceled SAT was very sad for us. (Though please note I think the SAT is total BS the College Board is a scam and they should burn down the whole company and all become street sweepers.)

I told myself it’s okay because it’s canceled for everyone. That did not turn out to be true. It was only canceled for poor kids. I thought that would be okay because we certainly don’t count as rich kids in the college game, but poor is really really poor in the college game. So not having an SAT score was bad.

That’s not our mistake though. We couldn’t have known that Covid would cancel the SAT. But, just like I could have known to fact check my throw-away line about Einstein, I could have known to hire a counselor once I knew Covid changed everything.


I had studied for years on how to do college admissions as a homeschooler, but only for one scenario. I needed to talk to someone who had gone through a gazillion scenarios to tell me how to deal with the fact that applications were up 100% at Colgate.

Colgate??? Really? Is Colgate that good? Why Colgate? Am I so old that I don’t know what school is good at what isn’t? The answer was yes. I am not joking when I tell you that first of all, we had to apply to 20 schools when I was only planning to apply to five. And we literally applied to schools that neither of us could tell you what state they were in. The process was so awful that to this day, my son has no even checked to see if he got into some of the schools. We just had no idea where he could get in and where he couldn’t because it was such a crazy year.

Another reason it was totally insane that I didn’t hire a counselor is that he absolutely needed a full scholarship and I didn’t understand how honors programs worked. I didn’t know which schools would like a kid like him I didn’t know which schools gave a lot of aid. I focused so much on making him a good academic candidate. I needed to hire someone who knew about making our family a good financial aid candidate.

And then, AFTER WE SEND IN 20 APPLICATIONS my son announced he wants to stay close to home. I think a good college counselor would have gotten that out of him early in the process, but it was a shit show with us for pretty much all of the fall. Wait. All of the winter. So he had to have room to breathe before he could figure out what he wanted and that’s a pretty bad way to do applications.

So my advice to you is to hire a college counselor. The good ones are $10K. And they’re worth it. I hired one in December and the only reason she wasn’t $10K is because it was too late for her to do $10K worth of work. Do not hire someone in December. That’s insane. You should hire someone when your kid is a freshman. Everyone says that. I read it a million times. You probably won’t do it. But I’m telling you, my biggest mistake was that I didn’t do it.

Still, my son got into Northeastern University’s honors program with a full scholarship. It’s two blocks from our apartment. We are both so happy. Thank God.

11 replies
  1. Anne
    Anne says:

    Literally Thank God!! It has been a crazy year in the college-admissions game!! And to be able to have your kiddo near home? And with a full-ride scholarship?? At a place he actually wants to attend?? Literally… too good!! You should get a lottery ticket!! Wait! This is it!! You have hit the lottery!! I’m happy for you, and your family!! I know you have been really struggling these past few years!!

    We love you Penelope!! We might not agree with you sometimes-but the discussion is always open, and that is appreciated!!

  2. Terri T
    Terri T says:

    Thanks for this. Like you, we had a plan. Covid didn’t affect us as much as most, (We do have SAT scores.) but things shifted enough that I’m second-guessing. It’s not like we can change much at this stage but we can change how we package it. especially for the Ivies on our list I think that’s going to matter. The crazy high application rates really scare me. So I’ve been on the fence about hiring someone but I think I need to do it now.

    Congrats to your son. Brown is my son’s top choice but Northeastern and Tufts are on his list as well. We would all love to be back in Boston.

  3. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I was waiting for this one. I’m glad you’re back to the blog because gosh it would be a pity not to get to the end of your homeschooling saga. It seems like you’ve been plotting and planning for your kids’ college admissions longer than most people. Since three? Wow!

    I like seeing an assessment of both successes and failures here. I think you’ve demonstrated your three points very well, and that’s an accomplishment.

    That said, what’s the thing that your older son is great at? Was he great at it since age three? (Besides test-taking, I mean.) I feel like you either haven’t spoke about that much, or perhaps it’s changed over the years. I know that my son’s primary focus has changed over the years. Test-taking is just ticket-punching. After that, you have to do something with the classes.

    In terms of point one, I find that you proving that point alone is remarkable and admirable. Well-done there. I envy you your early certitude. In my case, one of the reasons I brought my kid home to homeschool him (which had always been Plan B) was his dissatisfaction with the pace of academic learning at school. He intuitively understood mathematics, as does my daughter, and (unlike her) he was very motivated to learn more and faster. Not covering anything academic in elementary school was just not in the cards for me. I left him to pursue his own interests, and he quickly gravitated to algebra and graduate-level biology. School was awful for him thereafter because it could never keep up with his academic pace.

    In my observation of other homeschooling parents (I knew dozens), I found most of them to be concerned with academic excellence. Many of them were homeschooling because they found the elementary schools in Boston insufficient, and their kids went on to exam school. Some of them were in for the long haul, but in order to provide what they felt was a superior education through high school; they were one-upping school kids, not providing a radically different model. Very few parents I knew were as determined to stick with unschooling to the degree you did. In part, my son went back to school in seventh grade because most of his friends were doing that and the other friends were even more academically “rigorous.” That said, it seems you made up for it in the later years with an amazing fleet of tutors. Sometimes it seems you must have spent as much on tutors as others did on private school.

    Very few homeschooling parents are going to prove out point one. Most homeschooling parents will want to at least keep the door open for their kids to return to school, and that means keeping abreast of what the kids in school are doing. I think that’s unfortunate.

    I agree with you that you seem to have forgotten something with regards to the SAT. Perhaps it would be useful to establish a rule: WWARPD. If, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle like the cancellation of the SAT, you asked yourself “What would a rich person do?”, you might visualize the conclusion that a rich person would hire a fixer, and push forward, because entitlement has its rewards. There must have been somewhere that the SAT was still given, but you didn’t know, and would have a hard time finding out, where it was. There’s a fixer for everything, and if the fixer’s stock in trade is knowledge, he’s not going to give it away for free. I’m reading an interesting book right now, Unequal Childhoods, by Annette Lareau, and it talks about how poor parents feel like they have to do what an institution says and rich parents make the institution work for them.

    With regards to the increased rate of applications to colleges, there are a pair of numbers you seem to be failing to fit together. You say you only planned to apply to five schools, but applied to twenty. And then you express surprise that the application rate at one college was up 100%. If everybody is applying to four times as many colleges, then colleges are getting four times as many applications.

    That said, your son had the bad luck of having to compete with a bumper crop of deferments. Perhaps the idea that the student body this fall at a selective institution will be unusually good may be a consolation.

    Also, I have risen to your challenge and dropped a substantial and very argumentative comment on your career blog. You’re welcome!

  4. Dana
    Dana says:

    On number 2, if your only goal is to get your kids into a selective university, maybe I could agree with you. I’m all for helping kids find something they love and to lean into it, but there is so much to explore in life. I don’t just want my kids to get a good education, I want them to grow up to be functional adults with life skills, emotional intelligence and memories of family togetherness. My 10 yo is right now sitting on the front porch noodling around with his clarinet that he just started learning to play. It’s not going to help him get into Yale but who cares?

    I live in a rural place not far from a few major cities. We do a lot of 4-H, dabble in sports, raise a few animals and have a big garden. I make a good living working remote for a software company and my husband is an engineer for the state. By your definition, this may not be a successful life, but it’s a great life that we crafted. That is what I want for my kids.

    My daughter has her eyes on Duke. She has the grades and SAT scores to be a contender, but even if she gets in, I think Clemson or Va Tech would be better for what she wants from life. And she didn’t have to give up exploring in childhood to make that happen.

    My kids go to school, but I did really enjoy watching them spread their wings during no-school lockdown last year. I agree that kids could more or less unschool until 7th grade-ish and still be on track to learn everything they need to.

  5. Anna
    Anna says:

    Speaking of “Thank God”, I’m always amazing at situations that work out like your son’s. He wanted to stay in Boston, it is two blocks away, and a full scholarship in the honor’s program. It seems to me that this has to be divine Providence.

  6. YMKAS
    YMKAS says:

    Wow! What a whirlwind! I need to re-read this three more times just to soak it all in.

    Distance learning during Covid has certainly changed things for us! My oldest will be a freshman in high school and several school districts created permanent distance learning academies to which she will be using to continue her homeschooling with all the benefits of having instructors and school clubs…and continue working on her art which she spends 6-7 hours a day doing. We are keeping all her options on the table, including community college…and then art schools?

    Congratulations and best wishes to your incoming college freshman!!

  7. WorkTime
    WorkTime says:

    It has been a really tough year for everyone, literally. Congratulations, this is a really big win !!
    In terms of point one, I find that you proving that point alone is remarkable and admirable. Well-done there. I envy you your early certitude. In my case, one of the reasons I brought my kid home to homeschool him (which had always been Plan B) was his dissatisfaction with the pace of academic learning at school.

  8. Lesley Parker
    Lesley Parker says:

    Congratulations on your well-deserved success!
    This thought is fantastic “You need to find the thing your kid loves — academic or not academic — and they need to be great at it”. The most important is to love what you do or else it becomes torture.

    • Setting up Home School
      Setting up Home School says:

      We all know how tremendously the way of Covid is affecting everything in the world. As of now, scientists estimate that it would take time to get things back to normal. Every country is facing different problems and they are at different points in their COVID-19 infection rates.

      In all of this situation, if we consider the worldwide rate then it says that currently more than 1.2 billion children in almost 186 countries are affected by the closure of the schools due to the pandemic wave.

  9. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    I remember when you got so many comments about your grammar mistakes that you hired a proofreader! That was the same lesson, wasn’t it? I homeschool my kids because of what I learned on this blog. I was worried that you were going to say it’s a huge mistake. What if your kids aren’t great at anything? What if they’re just ordinary people, and we’re not rich? I still think homeschool is a path to a good life. Maybe not a “successful” one. But living up to your potential is BS, anyway..

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