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The College Application

By Jeannette Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #87, 2009.

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Jeannette Webb


The complete college application is actually composed of many parts: The First Year Application (which includes Essays), Letters of Recommendation, Secondary School Report (which includes the Transcript and School Profile/Transcript Legend), Fine Art Portfolio (for music and fine art majors), the Financial Aid Application, the Mid-year School report, and the Final School report. It is imperative that you pay careful attention to each of these categories and their deadlines, since homeschoolers are in the unique position of providing all the information the school will receive (with the exception of the teacher recommendation letters).

Be Careful with Details

College applications are almost always offered online, which is preferable to the old-style paper application with lots of whiteout covering our mistakes. We want a professional presentation and we increase our odds of success by using the online option.

You will also often have the choice of filling out the school’s own form or the Common Application. With the Common App, you can apply to multiple schools with one application. Some schools will request their own Common Application Supplement, but you still save time using this option. However, if you have a single school that is your top choice, it is wise to fill out their own application. This proves that you care enough to go the extra mile.

When you log on to the school website or the Common Application website (CommonApp.org) you will need to register with a username and password. Keep all this information together, as you will be returning multiple times. If you apply to a number of colleges, it is easiest to write all the details down in one place: student’s Social Security Number and Common Application Number, graduation date, GPA (weighted and unweighted), and all test information for SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests, AP tests, IB tests, (scores, dates taken).

As you are filling out the application, remember to always follow instructions! If you can’t do it on a college application, they will assume you can’t do it in a college class either. Word limits are a rule, not a suggestion.

Have a Strategy

Most people just start filling the application out, but the wise family will look over the entire document and strategize a plan of attack. You must cease being “mother” and become a master marketer. We must understand what each school values and adapt each application accordingly.

Please do not misunderstand. We do not fabricate information and we do not present our student as someone they are not. We can, however, choose to present the information in a way the school understands and appreciates.

Look carefully at each section to see what opportunities you are given to get all your information in front of them. In earlier columns we’ve mentioned “talking points,” the most important parts of your student’s candidacy that you want to present. Each college will give you opportunities in different places. Early in the application you will be given a form to list activities, academic honors, and academic year employment. Then there will be short-answer questions, and finally an essay or two. Look at the essay first. Which topic can you pick that will allow you to present your most important information or character trait? Then look at the short-answer questions. Will they allow us to present the next important piece of information? Then use the forms to fill out numbers and show breadth.

To make this work, you need to be able to present your “talking points” in either bullet format for the forms, in a short-answer question, or in a long essay. Each school will give you opportunities in different places and you must be able to present it well regardless of format. The short answer questions must be as carefully written as the long essay.

It is important that you form a cohesive presentation of your student’s candidacy for all documents. In other words, if you list something in the College Application, there should be back-up information in the counselor letter, the letters of recommendation, etc. We don’t tell the same story over and over, but the same story with different anecdotes, from different vantage points, from different audiences. The story may wax poetical in one letter to very factual on a form.

The First Year Application

The rest of this column will deal with the First Year Application, or the first part of the Common Application.

Aside from information like name, address, Standardized Test scores, and senior year classes, the first part of the application includes Activities, Academic Honors, Work Experience, Short Answer Essays, Essays, and occasionally something extra.

How to Fill Out the Lists

The first big part of the application is the Activity Section. Here we must boil down the one-page résumé (outlined in PHS #86 ) and reduce it to approximately six lines—the very most important things about the student. We list things in order of importance (which could change depending on the school) unless we are specifically asked to do it chronologically.

For Activities you will be asked to list the interest/activity and check a box for the grade when it happened (9,10,11,12, and PG—post-graduate). The more checkmarks the better. Collleges like to see consistency over time—not serial joiners who have shallow commitment to multiple activities. They will then ask you approximate hours spent per week (this includes the activity itself, preparation time for the activity, and commute time), as well as how many weeks per year. They are basically looking at how you spend your time and what is important to you. Be careful though; make sure the hours you list per week in all the categories don’t add up to more time than is available. This is a common mistake and makes you look dishonest.

It is also important to fill in all the boxes they give you. Break down some activities if needed. For example, instead of listing debate tournaments, awards, and debate leadership all together, you can list the competitive debate separately from the leadership element of your profile.

Finally, you will list positions held and honors or letters received in each activity. This is also the place to list your leadership—numbers of people reached, numbers of classes taught, etc. Always fill up the space allotted to you.

The secret of filling out these forms is to keep typing to see how much room you actually have. The little boxes on the form are horribly deceiving and make it appear you only have room for one or two words. Often you will find you can write a good-sized paragraph to describe the activity. To be successful in getting everything in, literally count the characters you have and keep trying until you can get the right fit. Use numbers instead of words, a hyphen, sensible abbreviations, whatever it takes. Also, be aware that many online form boxes these days can be “stretched” by dragging out the lower right corner, giving you lots of additional space. This is another reason to use an online format. Paper formats do not give you the extra space.

Academic Honors will give you room to list the honor, the grade in which it was awarded, and a description. Work Experience asks for the specific nature of the work, the employer, approximate dates, and number of hours per week.

Personal Details to Share—or Not

Sometimes you will be given the opportunity to list favorite things like books, movies, websites, keepsakes, etc. This appears to be a no-brainer, but needs to be handled carefully. These unique questions give the college a window into your life that the rote forms do not. While you should be honest, you should also be cautious. Most colleges are still a bit suspicious of homeschoolers and we need to always keep that in the back of our minds. We never know what type of person our admission officer is going to be and we risk coming off poorly if we ignore the fact that many do not see the world through our unique vantage point.

Let me give you some examples.

One of my clients wanted to list a survivalist handbook as his favorite book. While it was innocent enough (he was a Boy Scout after all), put yourself in the shoes of the admissions officer. The assumption could have been that this kid was a gun-toting survivalist nut. However unfair such biases and profiling might be, realize that in these post-Virginia Tech days admissions officials are extra jumpy about such things.

You must also decide how you will handle your faith. Some people want to be all out there and make it the focus of their application (which is fine for a Christian school). There’s nothing wrong with that at any school, but be aware that it may be a point of discrimination against you in a secular environment. When the Lord has called Christian kids into aggressively secular campuses, I have advised them to keep their application sanitized of Christian buzzwords. If your lists of favorite things includes Christian music groups, Christian books, Christian movies, and keepsake crosses, they think they know exactly who you are and might decide that you will not be a good fit for their community.

My family sees it like this—we are missionaries in a hostile country. We have to move slowly, learning the language, understanding the culture, and being a true friend. Eventually the Lord will give us the opportunity to share our faith. If we go in under the banners of a crusade decked out in Christian t-shirts and fish paraphernalia, chances are we’ll never have the opportunity at all.

Print Preview

After several weeks of careful editing, thoughtful analysis, and looking at our application through the eyes of our chosen college, it is ready to go. But first, always do a print preview. This will show you exactly what the college admissions officer will hold in their hand. Go over it with a fine-tooth comb. Let it sit overnight. Only hit the “Submit” button after every proofreader in the family has carefully reviewed it.

Jeannette Webb has worked with high school students for over 25 years helping them develop public speaking, leadership, and interview skills, as well as prepare effective scholarship applications. As Oklahoma State University’s first Truman Scholar (the American equivalent of the Rhodes Scholar), she went on to receive a B.S. in Human Development and an M.S. in Family Economics. She spent a decade with the OSU Cooperative Extension Service as 4-H and Youth Development Specialist and Resource Management Specialist before she became a home educator in 1993. A former OCHEC Trustee, she has also been a support group leader and conference speaker. In 2005, Jeannette received a Presidential Scholar Distinguished Teacher Award. Jeannette teaches “Homeschooling Through High School” seminars and is a college coach dedicated to helping homeschool students matriculate to America’s top colleges. She can be reached through aiminghigherconsultants.com. And yes, she’s the mother of homeschooled academic superstar Austin Webb!


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