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College Prep Unschooling

I was sad to see that after the demise of the long-running Home Education Magazine, the publisher chose to take down the entire site, and with it the archive of years of articles that they published. I wrote for HEM for only the last two years, but I loved being able to contribute to an important voice in homeschooling. Since these articles are no longer available online, I am re-publishing mine here on my blog.

When people find out that I homeschool my teenager, their questions tend to fall into predictable groups. What about socialization? and Aren’t you afraid of the gaps in learning? are two of the major ones. These are relatively easy questions to answer: Since when is sitting in a classroom with 32 kids the same age socially appropriate? And as for those gaps, in our house we welcome them and fall into them deliciously when we feel ready!

One of the things my son has been able to apply himself to is his debate club, which travels to conventions.

One of the things my son has been able to apply himself to is his debate club, which travels to conventions. So much for unsocialized homeschoolers!

One question, however, comes from parents of academically focused students and deserves deeper consideration. How can unschoolers who are looking forward to applying to competitive universities adequately prepare themselves? And even more importantly for us parents, how can we make sure that we’re not actually placing a huge handicap on our kids when we decide to homeschool them through high school?

Guiding a student who hopes to study Math at MIT, Political Science at Harvard, or attend Stanford Medical School is a process that requires thinking about how others will view our students’ achievements from the outside—anathema to most homeschoolers who focus on their children’s well-being first and foremost. Although this is still child-led learning—it is our students, after all, who are setting the goal of getting into these universities—it leads to different sorts of decision-making.

Kevin Karplus, whose son applied to top computer science and engineering programs this year, says that his son’s goals required him to apply much more effort into achieving outside his areas of interest.

“Early on, we decided to make sure that he met the admissions criteria for the University of California, which meant taking a few courses that he had little interest in, mainly in the humanities,” Karplus explains.

In the case of Jon Ziegler’s math-focused son, the decision-making process led in a different direction.

“My son has no interest in getting a formal education outside of his passionate interest in math,” Ziegler explains. “That pretty much eliminated all US colleges except for those with flexible curricula like Brown. However, those schools did not have outstanding math departments.”

Ziegler’s son ended up focusing on universities outside of the U.S. which had no general education requirements for application. He is in the process of applying to Cambridge University, where he will be allowed to focus on math exclusively if he chooses to go.

Christine, a mom who has three homeschooling teens, says that to a certain extent it’s possible to make a passionate high schooler’s transcript look more or less ‘conventional’ for the purpose of college admissions committees.

“While they did pursue their own passions, I did make sure that their transcripts reflected what the colleges would look for,” Christine explains. “This was easier than I thought.  At first, their high school years looked lopsided, but by the time they finished, I was able to easily fill in the matrix of what kids are expected to cover in high school.”

Christine elaborates on the process of translating unschooling to a college application by detailing how she found a way to fulfill the University of California’s English requirements. “For the University of California application, two quarters of CC English validated three years of unschooled English activities for one kid. Since we didn’t follow formal English curriculums, I pulled high school English syllabuses from UC approved classes and compared them to the work done each year. At the end of each year, he had read and discussed several good literature books based on his interests that year, check. Researched, attended, and discussed several Shakespeare plays, check. Prepared and given presentations for various technical projects, check. Wrote various summaries, resumes, emails, software documentation, etc., check.”

“Looking back,” Christine admits, “I was always amazed at what was accomplished in comparison to the expectations of the UC approved class.”

This is not to say that homeschooling high school doesn’t have its challenges. One thing I like to say to people about my role unschooling a high schooler who hopes to apply to competitive colleges in computer science is that my role is much less teacher than scheduler, coach, and chauffeur. Christine agrees.

“My kids have had to travel to and from classes, jobs, and activities and juggle a variety of schedules,” she says. “At the high school level, I became more of a facilitator, guiding the process. For some subject areas, I knew they needed more than I could offer and we found outside teachers and mentors. For other areas, we worked through them together, giving each student the time and flexibility to master the material in ways that worked for them. I love this aspect of homeschooling.”

Some of the advantages of unschooling high school can actually be liabilities at the same time. The flexibility, for example, allows our students to delve much more deeply into their areas of passion. It also allows the student—and the parent—to be less mindful of deadlines and less aware of how much can actually be achieved in one day.

“Time management can be tough, as there is more to do than there is time for, and parental deadlines don’t carry the same weight as external ones,” recalls Kevin Karplus.

Karplus also points out that the flexibility isn’t terribly helpful when our students need something we simply can’t provide.

“Finding courses and teachers for things we couldn’t teach ourselves was often difficult,” Karplus admits. “The community college is a great resource, if you can get into the classes.”

Sometimes the problem is availability; for example, community college students who are still officially ‘in high school’ are usually given lower priority for class enrollment than matriculated students. Karplus, who had no trouble working with his son in his own areas of expertise, math and computer science, ended up having to do chemistry labs at home because the community college chemistry class had a wait list.

Other issues that come up can simply be a matter of convenience: For example, in-person classes not offered close enough to home, or online classes offered at inconvenient times. And, of course, there is the ever-present problem of self-motivation—even if the student has committed herself to applying to a competitive college, she might not be willing to put in the effort she needs to in her weaker areas. When no one is forcing you to go to English class in third period—much less threatening to fail you if you don’t get your next paper in on time—it can sometimes be hard to keep up the necessary pace.

But all those drawbacks are clearly outweighed by the benefits of unschooling high school for academically motivated students. The most important issue, for both students and the competitive colleges they are applying to, is that unschooling high school allows students who are advanced in one or more academic subjects the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the pack.

“I was just rereading my son’s college application essays and the internships and projects related to computer science and electronics he was able to pursue were extensive,” recalls Christine. “For my daughter, she hasn’t had to decide between challenging classes, sports, and volunteer work like many of her schooled friends. She was able to organize her own schedule and work efficiently so that she was able to volunteer over 3000 hours during middle and high school for a local animal shelter. Both were able to progress at their own pace, accelerating in some areas and having time to mature in others.”

Freed from the confines of a high school’s offerings, unschooling teens can opt to move into more challenging classes much earlier.

“As a homeschooled student you have the flexibility to take whatever classes you can at local colleges,” says Jon Ziegler. “This can mean exposure to much more advanced material than is usually possible in high school. In his case he’s been informally sitting in on graduate math classes for several years now.”

Kevin Karplus points out that students can also shine in areas apart from their academic pursuits.

“This year he has been doing a lot of acting,” Kevin explains. “This weekend will be his fourth in a row for being on-stage in four different productions. [This] would have been impossible [while] doing a ‘normal’ high-school load.”

In the case of my own student, the thing we treasure most is the time he has to pursue his own projects. For a few years now he has been able to convert personal programming explorations into successful science fair projects, write apps that have brought in actual cash, and join a high-tech start-up with some homeschooling friends. These are all things that we hope will distinguish his application and provide a counterweight to the fact that he simply spends less time on the classes and activities that I remember kids referring to as ‘college suck’—things that would look good on an application.

“In many ways, homeschooling high school has been easier than going to school,” Christine says. “My kids have been able to take classes outside of the traditional pacing. They have been able to interact with a greater variety of teachers and students, and more with the larger community. They have gotten more than just classroom learning through their extensive work and volunteer time and have interacted with adult mentors and had real world experience to help jump career exploration. This is all in addition to more personal time and less stress than we see from schooled kids who are pursuing similar college goals.”

It is both comforting and a bit worrisome that these students will enter university looking quantifiably different than their schooled peers. As parents, we hope that colleges will look at these unusual, lopsided applications and see dedication and creativity rather than worrying about why our children didn’t do the required semester of ‘health.’

“He already has the equivalent of the first two years of a computer engineering degree program,” Kevin Karplus says, “and has done projects comparable in scope and complexity to college senior design projects.”

Christine’s list of the things her children were able to do while unschooling reads like an advertisement for what we hope the admissions committees will notice in our students’ applications.

“Many real world experiences pursuing their passions—internships, jobs, projects for Maker Faire, commercial products, extensive volunteer and leadership opportunities…”

And she is one mom who can point to success when she meets up with naysayers.

“My daughter is heading to Berkeley as a Regent’s Scholar, joining her brother who also is.  Who knows what their younger brother will do.  Each one has such unique needs and paths.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why we unschool.


Unschooling to College Resources

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

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