At the start of this week I drove my two eldest sons to a large public university in a neighboring state. The younger one came so that I could drop him off at a weeklong residential STEM camp the college of engineering was hosting for soon-to-be-eighth-graders. The eldest, who will be a (homeschooled) high school senior this year, came to make a college visit.
This is the second university that he and I have visited; the first was the large public university in our home city. We live in that city today because that is where I went for graduate school. Our son is price-conscious, and likes a big place and city life, so these two universities are his two likely choices. They cost about the same (thanks to tuition reciprocity), and both have about equally rated engineering colleges and business colleges. These are his two interests. When I asked him if he didn't want to apply to a third school as a "backup," he explained that majoring in business instead of engineering was his backup plan, because this essentially means he is applying to four colleges. This makes a great deal of sense to me.
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I have worked very hard to anticipate problems that we might run into along the way, and because I am a stickler for filling out forms correctly and fitting into the right boxes, I have documented things with near obsession. I have been thinking about applications since my first was in kindergarten, at first idly and then with more and more interest.
Still, one of the consequences of charting your own path is that unexpected bumps are to be expected. And this year I have run into the problem of official letters of recommendation. Which is something I failed to anticipate. I wound up talking to the admissions counselors, by the way, and my son and I have a plan for how to deal with it, so there is a happy ending; but let me save you some trouble if your kids aren't in high school yet, by helping you foresee what I didn't.
So the deal with us is this: Engineering colleges, it turns out, want academic (official) letters of recommendation from math and science teachers specifically. But in our family, Mark and I are my own children's only math and science teachers (so far). Why would we have outsourced this? I outsourced English, physical education, and music because there are other people who can teach this far better than I. If any of my children had shown more-than-passing interest in studio art or performance art, or in a modern language, or maybe in up-to-date computer programming (I coded in Fortran 77, and Mark only writes Visual Basic), I would have sent them for outside lessons in those as well.
If there is anything that the outside observer, mildly biased against non-institutional schools, would think that I am officially qualified to teach, it is math, physics, and chemistry. I enjoy teaching those subjects, and I am confident teaching them, and therefore I do not outsource them. And if I may say so myself, I teach them well. At least, I am having fun, and the kids I have taught (mine and H's) seem to enjoy the courses and also appear to learn the material. I make my own syllabi that are closely aligned to the AP syllabi, and I use college textbooks (which are very affordable if you go just a couple of editions out of date), and I have even found an adequate home laboratory kit for general physics and chemistry, and I insist on excellent lab notebook maintenance.
The consequence, which I failed to foresee, is that there is no math or science teacher from which I can request a letter of recommendation. H's kids can get a letter from me, with the full alphabet soup after my name. My kids can get a letter from H, of course; she is their their English-degreed literature and composition tutor who's worked with them since they were learning to read. But no parent can write a credible letter of recommendation for their own offspring. And I failed to foresee that a STEM college would want an institutional STEM letter.
(Cue sound of me smacking myself in the forehead.)
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Are you thinking, "But that's crazy! Surely they have enough homeschooled students applying by now, most of whom do pretty well in college from what we hear, that they have alternate instructions on their website for applications."
They do have some general instructions, indeed. But I think the numbers show that really, only a tiny number of their applicants find themselves in the position we are in re: STEM grades. Let's do an engineering estimate:
- About three percent of K-12 students are being homeschooled in my state this year.
- That figure is the number over all the grades from K-12. Lots of homeschooling families only homeschool through sixth or eighth grade -- more, I would wager, than the number who switch from institutional school to home school in the high school years. So I am thinking that fewer than three percent of high school students are likely to be homeschooled.
- You do have to correct for the fact that homeschooled students -- likely because of the correlation with the education level of the parents -- appear to be slightly more likely to attend college than the general population of students. The data on this is variable and not great, but could be as high as a doubling of the percentage who attend college. My argument is weaker the larger this number is, so I will concede it. Let's say that maybe five to six percent of college applicants might be homeschooled. Now we have a potentially significant number, yes. (Although the few colleges I could find online that made a reference to it -- mostly elite private colleges -- stated that a only tiny number of their applicants were homeschooled.)
- But! Lots of homeschooling families use an umbrella school, "school-in-a-box," or distance learning program which generates official grades and an official transcript and which may have nonparent instructors, tutors, or graders. (Certain states, though not mine, require homeschoolers to use such a service.) Even if the school or program is not accredited, universities will probably take their grades and transcripts as evidence of the student's performance. So now we have narrowed that small percentage to even fewer students who, like mine, lack a complete institutional high school transcript.
- Finally, even those high school homeschoolers who chart their own course often use tutors, co-op classes, community colleges, and the like to teach subjects that they aren't comfortable teaching themselves. And the STEM classes are often the ones that get outsourced. So you just don't get many kids who have *no* institutional or nonparent STEM teachers who are nevertheless attempting to enter colleges of engineering.
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Anyway, this is just to say that if you want to reduce your bureaucracy later on, it's probably a good idea to help your teens rack up the sorts of experiences that naturally lead to letters of recommendation.
It isn't so much that they won't be able to put together a good application without checking all the boxes -- we really did get the impression, at least at the colleges that we visited, that they just want to be able to get a comprehensive picture of the student. It's more that it feels better to be confident that you're sending them something their system can deal with.
And so, I reached out to the admissions counselor, and she helped me come up with a plan that I can work with that will give them the information they need. I now feel not that there are no boxes to check, but that we have been issued an alternate set of check boxes.
I was telling Mark last night, the main benefit I got from talking to the admissions counselor and getting advice, tailored to our family's approach, about how to set up transcripts, grades, and recommendations, was that I will spend less time wondering "We can't just follow the directions, so.... Should we do this or should we do that?" With that advice in my pocket, my guidance counselor hat will fit a little bit more comfortably and I will waste less time trying out different approaches.
I get the impression that even though there are plenty of experienced homeschoolers around who can tell us how they navigated this final step, it's normal and expected to feel somewhat at sea. We provide an individualized education -- that is, after all, the point. And because it is so individualized, there is a limit to how much we can follow each others' examples. Sooner or later you just have to figure out how to fit into systems in a way that is tailored to your own family's unique approach. Which is true for everyone, really; it's just that for some folks the systems make that uniqueness more obvious than for others.