Second 2010 Seminar
The Seminar “College Admissions for the Unconventional Student: Looking at Both Brand-Name Colleges and Beyond” focused on problem-solving for families who have taken or are taking unusual paths through the high school years. Several topics were the focus of the week.
One challenge that many families confront is how to balance the requirements that colleges ask of students when they apply for admission with their children’s exceptional academic strengths, which can no longer be met either in regular schools or even through a combination of homeschooling and part-time college enrollment. These can range from age limitations on enrollment at a young age, admission office concerns about the maturity of younger than typical students to live in a college residence hall, lack of a conventional high school transcript and recommendations, and the difficulties in meeting the course requirements that college ask for. But each one is different, and you have to ask them individually about their policies and procedures for these situations. I gave several pieces of advice often during the week. These are the major themes.
1) Every college, and every state, has its own rules and culture about how to deal with these issues. There is no general policy, no one size fits all approach. For this reason, among others, it is good to cast a wide net, rather than too narrow a focus in applying to college. It is often assumed that only a brand-name college can adequately slake the insatiable curiosity of a Davidson YS. This is simply not true. Any college can and might be interested in such students. You don’t have to go to Cal Tech or MIT to study science and do research at a high level. All college faculties offer this, and they frequently offer merit scholarships to go with it for very talented students. And there are hundreds of such colleges, including a number of high-quality honors programs at public universities, which have much lower price tags than the more famous and much more selective private colleges. At the end of the day, the name on the sticker in your rear windshield is less important than the energy and responsibility that your child takes toward his or her own education. Our culture has sold us on wanting only the “best” as defined by someone else’s often spurious criteria, and that can be a treacherous road to disappointment of unrealistic expectations, a road best avoided in the college admissions process.
2) I recommend doing a lot of your own research on colleges and how they feel about younger students, or students without normal transcripts. How you are heard and received tells you a lot. Homeschoolers are a mixed bag in the eyes of admission officers. They present both opportunity – very bright youngsters whom faculty would love to teach – and risk, because their track record, outside of test scores, is harder to evaluate in a comparison to other applicants.
3) I urge families to see the application as an opportunity to tell their story of why they chose the educational path they did. And their child needs to explain their choices as well. Colleges will make sense of this in their own ways, but you have this enormous freedom to go outside the lines of the standard application questions to tell your story. This should, by the way, include lengthy descriptions of any homeschooled courses that your child undertook.
4) College credit is not a big deal. It is not an honor to have passed a college course or gotten an A in it. The pursuit of college credit can become an end in itself. The goal should be your child’s educational growth and stimulation of their curiosity. There is no race to finish college by a certain age. There is no special merit badge for such an accomplishment. So the primary criterion for enrolling in a college class should be its educational value, rather than the course credit.
5) Many children who are square pegs in the round holes of “normal” education have a special bent or talent in one area. YS kids often are very advanced in math or science, but also sometimes in writing, music, and literature. Colleges preach a good line about being interested in their “passions” – my least favorite word in the admissions world – but they also want students to have a variety of academic skills. In other words, it is possible to go overboard in one direction because your child loves “X” so much. In particular, it is hard to get quality instruction in expository (not creative) writing. This is a lot of what they will do in college, and they need practice with this skill, not just in mastering material, which often comes easily to these very bright children.
6) I am a big fan of liberal arts colleges, of which there are hundreds, some famous (Amherst, Swarthmore, et al.), some less so, but still wonderful. Because they are not famous research universities, families think that they can’t be that good because they haven’t heard about them. A very educated parent asked me today where Lafayette College is. Go look it up and see. Two great books can be resources to reorient your thinking. Both are by Loren Pope. One is called Colleges That Change Lives, which give brief overviews of 40 fine liberal arts colleges all over the country. The other is called Looking Beyond the Ivy League, whose title gives you the idea.
7) Homeschoolers and other “irregularly” educated students often appeal to colleges if they can articulate their “intellectual vitality.” (Stanford has a question, which I wrote a version of 20 years ago, that uses this term.) But colleges rarely ask you to write about this on their applications. You have to know that they want to hear this, and they do. They want to know what students their faculty will enjoy teaching. This is why they want letters of recommendation from people who have taught you. So the student has this wonderful opportunity to take stock of themselves and explain how their mind works on the application.
8) Finally, there is only so much you can learn ahead of time by research and visiting colleges. The actual experience is out there in the future, and you have to be patient with your child as they sort through what is important to them. Still there are resources that can help beyond the two books listed in #6 above. I have recently published a book Admission Matters, which covers all the standard bases in college admission, from early decision to writing essays to financial aid. It is easy to read and cheap on Amazon ($10.17 plus postage.) It also has a few pages on homeschooling, which restates some of the advice given above. It has an extensive bibliography at the back, which can guide you in even more reading. The subject is inexhaustible, I assure you.
First 2010 Seminar
TIPS from 2007 Seminar
1) Realize that your children are exceptional in several ways, but that their strengths will need to be documented and their stories told to colleges when the time comes. Try to imagine what a college admissions officer will want to know about your child.
2) It is a good idea to ask several colleges how they would like the information presented: a narrative, a transcript, or both (probably). Notice how different types of colleges: public vs. private, big vs. small, and selective vs. not so selective may have different priorities.
3) Be prepared to meet the colleges at least halfway. They basically like young people, and they want to help, but they are also risk-averse about unusually young students. They will appreciate it a great deal if you can anticipate their questions and allay their concerns from the beginning.
4) You are both fortunate and unfortunate in having children in this age cohort. On the one hand, homeschooling and its variants are no longer new and do not need to be as thoroughly justified as they once had to be. At the same time, such students no longer automatically stand out in many admissions offices. In addition, the age group is at its peak over the next few years, and competition for admission to very selective schools is similarly intense and promises to remain so.
5) Be flexible about what is a good college for your child. The brandname on the windshield sticker may draw admiration from the car behind you, but it may not have the best learning situation for your child. Prestige and fame can have value in the real world, let’s not deny it, but they are also not the only factors that make for a successful college experience, and they may not be the most important ones either. There is more than one good college out there.
5) In general, small colleges offer more of an intellectual community, more personal attention (which may be important to a child with special needs due to age or other factors), and plenty of available courses even in the math and hard science areas of the curriculum.
6) Your children have a great and relatively rare advantage among teen-agers in America. They are genuinely intellectually curious and love to learn, but this needs to be shown in detail to the colleges, not just proclaimed.
7) Expense is a legitimate concern, and there is nothing wrong with spending less money if it is a factor to you. College is a family decision.
8) Being honest and straightforward with colleges will pay off in the long run. You will sleep better, and you will also have their respect, and you will get honest answers in return. Avoid deception and gimmicks. This may involve presenting what may seem like potentially harmful information, such as a learning difference or a psychological condition. There is no perfect answer on how to do this, of course.
9) In the end, it is your child’s education, not yours, but if he or she is younger than normal age for college, he or she may not have the judgment to evaluate colleges as carefully as a more independent and older child may be able to do.
10) The entire college admissions process is just that, a process. There are discreet steps to follow; every decision does not have to be made at the beginning. Children change during the process, and you need to anticipate this, even welcome it.
11) A sense of humor about it all is helpful. It is a stressful time in many people’s lives, but the destination is often not as important as the journey. Keep things in perspective, and learn to ride the bumps in the road.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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