Worried About Your COVID-Era College Application? Take a Page from the Homeschool Playbook

Worried About Your COVID-Era College Application? Take a Page from the Homeschool Playbook
AP Photo/Richard Drew

With over 1,600 colleges becoming test-optional, and traditional high school extracurriculars being reduced or cancelled, how are students supposed to stand out in college admissions?

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There is now a very different yardstick being used to measure and define success on college campuses as a result of the impact of COVID-19 on high school activities. Students who are worried about how to apply to college in these unconventional times could learn a lot from homeschooled students. The challenge of presenting a college application outside the norm is nothing new to homeschoolers, who have been finding creative and non-traditional ways to stand out in their college applications for years. 

“COVID is calling on admissions officers to be flexible and focus on student preparedness and academic strength in a new way,” said Ronne Turner, Vice Provost at Washington University in St. Louis in a recent interview. “Whatever preparation we have had in evaluating homeschool students over the years has certainly informed us as we look for creative ways to evaluate future candidates whose transcripts are impacted by school disruption as it relates to COVID.” 

Historically, the prevailing view of homeschoolers within elite universities was negative. That perspective began to change in the 1990s, as the question transitioned from “Will this candidate fit in?” to “How will this candidate expand perspectives and experiences within our student body?” At that point, admitting homeschoolers and other types of students with unique educational experiences went from tolerable to desirable.  “There is a high acceptance rate of homeschoolers to our honors college,” said Noah Buckley, Director of Admissions at Oregon State University.

So, how can high school seniors take a page from the homeschool playbook in applying to colleges and universities? We interviewed deans and directors of admissions who worked now or formerly at institutions such as: Duke University, University of North Carolina, Washington University, Oregon State University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University, Northeastern University, University of Wyoming, and University of Maryland.  We have consolidated their collective advice to homeschooled students—which now applies to millions of students nationwide whose educations have been disrupted by COVID-19.

1. Develop passions. Dig into subject areas that excite you and find ways to develop your expertise in that area—virtually if needed. For example, a student interested in computer programming could take an online college course in the subject, which may even be funded through their local school district. Or, a student interested in communications could look for an unpaid internship with a public relations firm. Homeschooled students have been using the flexibility of their education for years to focus on their interests, from working as animators to pursuing fashion design or the culinary arts during what would be traditional school hours.

2. Build a narrative. Inevitably, many college applications will include a question about the pandemic (the Common Application recently added an optional question for students to explain how COVID-19 has affected them). Have a story to tell about how you made the best out of a difficult season, helped your community, developed your passions, or explored new interests. 

3. Get great letters. Letters of recommendation will likely carry more weight in the coming years now that testing policies have changed. Students learning remotely face a similar challenge to that which homeschoolers have long faced. It’s much harder for teachers to get to know students well over Zoom, and we advise against submitting letters from parents (i.e. homeschool “teachers”).

Consider asking for recommendations from outside sources—like employers, alternative instructors, or others in a supervisory role who can evaluate you alongside your peers. Avoid letters of recommendation from anyone you pay directly (like a tutor or music teacher) because it lends a layer of complexity to the recommendation that makes it harder to evaluate. 

4. Impact your community. Look for ways to better the lives of those around you.  In the process of doing so, you will learn more about yourself and develop leadership skills through service.  Get involved by helping an elderly or at-risk neighbor, through a church, or gathering donations for a local shelter. Look for organizations or people whom COVID-19 has particularly affected. 

5. Be authentic. Pursue what matters—to you. Too often, it’s clear a student has joined a club or activity because it seems it might look good on an application.  Admissions officers can spot it in an instant; they read thousands of applications per year and can easily tell which students are just checking boxes. Authenticity means embracing uniqueness not for the sake of uniqueness but because you are doing what you believe matters. Top colleges are eager to consider candidates, not in spite of their uniqueness, but because of it. “In a funny way, homeschoolers are at an advantage,” said Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University,  “because they don’t have to worry about the culture of their school and extracurricular selection based on peer bias and what is cool.  Homeschoolers tend to choose what matters to them.”

Despite all the current upheaval, be encouraged.  “Even five years down the road, we aren’t going to forget that there was a pandemic” said Steve Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Carolina, “We aren’t going to hold students to some impossible pre-pandemic standard.” 

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