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Practical Homeschooling® :

Getting Into a Top College

By Austin Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #66, 2005.

Practical tips to help your kids get into a top college.
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Austin Webb

I'm still surprised by all that transpired in my senior year of high school. For a long time my family wasn't sure if we could pay for college or even if a serious college would admit me. Having grown up homeschooled on an isolated farm in western Oklahoma, I took only one formal class and didn't lay eyes on a standardized test until the age of 17. Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised when Harvard, MIT, and other schools started shelling out money in airfares to recruitment events and offering huge financial aid packages trying to recruit me.

You've probably heard of the Ivies (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.), the Institutes of Technology (MIT, Caltech), and private universities such as Rice, Duke, and Stanford. They are sometimes referred to collectively as the "top colleges." Most people are frightened off by rumors of impossible admissions standards or high cost. I certainly was intimidated initially, but a series of events changed my perspective. I would like to share what I learned and show you how a top college just might be in your future.

Boxes to be Checked

The first step in the process is to figure out what you want by comparing your goals with what specific colleges offer. There are any number of characteristics you might consider for a given college, but we will discuss only quality of education, atmosphere, affordability, and post-college employability.

Grey Matters

All degrees are not created equal, either in terms of academics or real world experience. Many factors affect the quality of education at a particular institution. Some are purely academic, such as class size, quality of teaching, interaction with students and professors, and the availability of academic resources (libraries, labs, etc.). Others aspects are more practical, such as opportunities for research, internships, and networking. On both counts, the top colleges generally excel due to their huge endowments and strong networks of global relationships. I chose to attend my particular college not only for the academics but also the fact that it will provide me the chance to learn from and work with some of the greatest scientists alive. If you are willing to work hard and keep your eyes open, similar opportunities may be presented to you.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Social Animals

Even with engrossing academics, four years is still a long time. Be sure to spend it with students you like in an atmosphere that you enjoy. One of the best ways to understand the environment at a particular college (short of visiting it) is to read a current copy of the ISI Guide, Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America's Top Schools. This guide profiles America's top schools, examining academic, social, and political life from a conservative vantage point. I found it to be extremely helpful in getting a feel for each institution. Given that homeschoolers tend to be more mature, disciplined, and intellectually serious, many will probably fit in much better with their peers at a top college than in most other institutions.

Through college programs, I've made many friends who are bound for top colleges. Having spent most of my life as a social/academic misfit, it was a great joy to find students who shared my passion for knowledge and my sense of fun. They have greatly broadened both my social and intellectual horizons and will continue to do so through my college years.

Don't misunderstand: the atmosphere at most institutions (including most Christian universities) has the potential to poison a student's faith. Attending a top college is NOT for the intellectually lazy or the spiritually immature. The academics will push you to your limits. Your peers and professors will test your spiritual grounding. While it is a sobering prospect, I'm not worried because I have already been through boot camp. I am not going to college to be influenced, but to influence. That's why I've spent all these years homeschooling.

Piggy Bank Protection

One myth about attending a top college is that it is prohibitively expensive. While I can't speak for all cases, this is not a rule. In fact, many families at the lower end of the middle class will find that a top college is their cheapest option. The "sticker price" of a top college is high, but because of large endowments, colleges are often willing to shell out significant financial aid to desirable students. The top colleges to which I was admitted paid for virtually everything except my books and some personal expenses. It's nice to know I won't have to live on oatmeal and squirrels from the park for the next four years.

The Rat Race

For many of us, the ultimate purpose of higher education is to get a job. I plan on getting married, having children, and homeschooling (in that order) one of these days, so remunerative employment is rather important.

One question you need to ask yourself concerning higher education and its role in your future is, "How many degrees do I need to get the job I want?" For fields such as engineering, information technology, and some areas of corporate business and finance, a bachelor's degree will suffice, though postgraduate degrees are becoming more common. For those with only undergraduate degrees, your alma mater's reputation can have a substantial effect on your starting salary. For law, medicine, science, senior corporate positions, and virtually any career in academia, postgraduate degrees are required and the quality of undergraduate education can help you get accepted into a prestigious graduate or professional school. Further, a top college can provide undergraduate research and internship experience that can give you an important edge during and after postgraduate study. It's good to get experience early, because if you aren't prepared you won't be able to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

Planning and Other Necessary Evils

If anything I have said has resonated with you and if you think a top college might be of interest, I encourage you to start early. Even if your child isn't yet in high school, it is important to understand college admissions so you can make informed decisions and start planning. If you are a parent you will find that the admissions game is much different today than it was when you were applying to college. The best way to start is by reading How To Get Into The Top Colleges by Richard Montauk and Krista Klein. This book is clear, extremely thorough, and offers great insight into the admissions process. It will help you to make the most of high school and to avoid getting blindsided.

Final Words

Future columns will give a detailed outline of the application process, including taking tests, planning high school academics and extracurriculars, writing effective essays, and interviewing successfully. I can't stress enough that the process takes a great deal of effort and is very time consuming.

I hope this column has encouraged you to consider some new options. I did, and it has opened up possibilities beyond my wildest dreams. The road there isn't easy, but the rewards at the end are great. As a homeschooling student or parent, you've invested a lot in education. Don't let that go by the wayside when homeschooling ends. Take the time to consider all your options and pick the best one. Admission to a world-class university brightened this farm boy's future and it could do the same for you.

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