Today, the Common Application goes live, and with it the college admissions season is once again here. And today, hundreds of thousands of rising high school seniors begin transitioning from the thrill of imagining themselves in a variety of university settings as they flip through college websites and view books to the anxiety of filling out applications and wondering if they will get into a college that is prestigious enough for their parents to place a sticker of that college on the back of the family car(s). While students who were able to opt out of traditional (public and private) schools so that they could go to a progressive alternative school, be homeschooled, or unschool themselves were able to avoid much of the stress associated with the ever-present college admissions arms race that has fully permeated the high school experience, they are often less sure of the next steps forward because they do not have a clear understanding of the application process or how they measure up against other college applicants. This essay serves as a brief primer for these applicants moving forward.
Ideally you (or your children) are not applying this year, and instead are planning to apply several years down the road. Those who begin earlier rather than later have significant advantages because they can be more thoughtful about building an interesting and relevant transcript, conduct meaningful research of their target schools, prepare for standardized tests, manage potential recommenders, and endlessly edit their essays until they near perfection. Additionally, those who understand that the college admissions process is a game can turn the game on its head by leading a remarkable life over the period of several years, as opposed to trying to package themselves in the 11th hour (see “It’s a Game” below). Some of this advice will be geared toward those who start earlier, but even those who wait until the summer before applications are due before they dive in can benefit from a better understanding of the admissions process and what they can bring to it.
It’s a Game
College admissions is not a meritocracy; it is a game. Sadly, it is a game that weighs heavily on applicants and parents, and it is often seen as a decision that can make or break one’s future prospects. Even more sad is that college admissions decisions have little to do with merit, and much to do with class and privilege. It is essential for applicants to recognize that the college admissions process is not fair, and that the decisions that colleges make in favor or against an applicant have absolutely no bearing on the academic or personal worth of that applicant. Easier said than done. But when an applicant recognizes that college admissions is a game, and they know the rules of the game (and how to hack it), they are more likely to be successful at the game. And an applicant that opts out of traditional schooling has a huge leg up in the admissions game.
Building a Transcript
Hopefully, most young people who are alternatively schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled know that a high school degree is largely worthless. No reputable college or university in the United States requires a high school degree. However, all colleges will want to see a transcript, and this is one area of several where non-traditionally schooled applicants have a sizeable advantage. The time and effort that typical high school students put into their transcripts usually ends with a verification that they are hitting all graduation requirements (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits) and a quick calculation to determine which honors and AP classes they should take to boost their GPA relative to their peers. But young people who are responsible for their educational pathways have the opportunity to walk admissions committees through a unique journey that was tailored to the applicant’s needs, goals, and interests. The best way to do this is to celebrate how the applicant spent their time engaged in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, without trying to conform it to a standard academic transcript (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits).
Additionally, letter grades or percentages are meaningless on a non-traditional transcript unless it shows anything less than a perfect GPA, which would hurt an applicant. Those who opt out of the traditional schooling system should never introduce the rank ordering aspects of grading that pull applicants down.
Another benefit of opting out of traditional schooling is that young people get to avoid the relentless testing that is required in the classroom and for the state (e.g., Texas STAAR, New York Regents). Testing serves as a means for lazy politicians, bureaucrats, administrators, and teachers to assess and sort students, at the expense of students. Hopefully, the first time any young person takes a test is if they opt into it for their own benefit, such as taking the PSAT or an AP test. However, one of the very few downsides to a non-traditional education is that many colleges will lean more heavily on standardized test scores during the admissions process. While the SAT or ACT most often serves as a disqualifier for top private colleges and universities (and as an automatic qualifier for many lower ranked private or state schools), non-traditional applicants may have a more difficult time overcoming a poor SAT or ACT score than a traditionally schooled applicant who has a perfect GPA and ranks at the top of their class might.
The good news for non-traditional applicants is they should have ample time to prepare for the tests without being burdened by the unnecessary time requirements associated with traditional schooling (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandatory classes, homework, studying, testing). And for those who do not perform well on standardized tests even with plenty of prep, there are now over 900 colleges and universities that do not rely on or require standardized tests in the application process.
It is worth noting that the most exclusive schools also require or “recommend” applicants submit SAT subject tests with their application. Non-traditional applicants should treat SAT subject tests as required if a school “recommends” them, and as recommended if a school “considers” them. Similar to the SAT and ACT, these tests can hurt an applicant’s prospects if they are low, but are unlikely to substantially help since so many applicants score in the high 700s or 800 on these tests.
Building a College List
Traditionally schooled applicants typically have an easier time than non-traditional applicants have of zeroing in on schools to apply to because (1) they are more likely to focus on college rankings as a guide for constructing their list, and (2) based on their class rank and GPA at their particular school, combined with their standardized test scores, they can lean on their guidance counselor or Naviance to help them identify the highest ranked schools where they have a chance of admission. Unfortunately, this approach results in a high volume of applications to a wide range of schools, lower quality applications, excessively high rates of anxiety, and very often a failure to identify best fit colleges.
Non-traditional applicants can more easily overcome the aforementioned challenges because they are more likely to ‘understand thyself’ thanks to years of self-directed learning (or less coercive schooling) and reflection, and are therefore are more likely to be drawn to colleges based on what opportunities and experiences the colleges can provide the applicant in accordance with their needs, as opposed to being drawn to colleges based on their rank. This process will still lead many of these non-traditional applicants to elite, private research universities such as Harvard and Stanford, but others may find that the flagship state school or even starting out at a local community college may be more advantageous for them, while many others may be drawn to liberal arts colleges that are less selective than the elite research universities but that arguably provide the best college education of all.
From a strategic perspective, fewer schools are better than many in the college admissions game. By focusing on only the most selective schools as opposed to the best fit schools, many applicants are driven to apply to upwards of two dozen colleges that may each have single or low double digit acceptance rates. In doing so, they undermine their chances by stretching themselves thin on supplemental essays, applying to schools that their applications will not resonate with, and failing to help recommenders (especially optional recommenders) tailor their letters to a target group of schools. Applying to a bunch of schools also costs a lot of money.
Many counselors and consultants recommend applying to 6-10 schools, but we would recommend applying to no more than five schools. We have advised applicants to only apply to schools they would be thrilled to attend because of what they could make of the experience, whether it is Harvard, Stanford, State Flagship University, or Directional State U. We highly recommend against applying to safety schools as something to fall into if best fit schools do not work out. We also recommend against applying to any schools that do not require supplemental essays beyond what is required in the Common Application or Coalition Application, unless the applicant feels that the school is a great fit for their needs. Schools that do not have additional essay prompts often benefit from having large numbers of lazier applicants apply because of the marginal effort required (an application fee), making it more difficult for a non-traditional applicant to drive home their unique story to the admissions committee. [The author of this essay applied to only three universities: West Point for college, Stanford and Harvard for business school, and Harvard for education school. The author has never been rejected and attributes much of that to being able to submit a near perfect application on the factors that he was able to control or have considerable influence over (e.g., essays, recommendations).]
Four-year Colleges vs. Community Colleges
Community colleges are a fabulous higher education alternative for both traditional and non-traditional applicants who are concerned about the cost of college, distance from home, or who may not be able to gain immediate access to more selective universities. Unfortunately, many people (especially in more affluent communities [and charter school networks]) seem to look down on them as an option because they do not carry with them an air of exclusivity. However, while many applicants and parents may find themselves on the outside looking in after the college admissions season, for many top state universities, community college is an excellent end-around into school, with many offering automatic admission based on GPA. Community colleges have particular leverage among many elite public universities such as Berkeley and UCLA where upwards of 20 percent of the undergraduates come from community colleges. Although the percentage of community college transfers at the University of Texas at Austin is lower than it is at the California schools, over 40 percent of transfer students into UT-Austin come from community colleges.
When to Apply
Sooner is always better than later in the admissions game. While some recommend holding off until Regular Decision (historically January 1st or 15th) so that applicants can build up their bonafides, it is extremely rare that someone is going to be able to add anything to their application in a couple of extra months that will seriously move the admissions committee. The cost of delaying until Regular Decision is missing out on the opportunity to apply Early Decision, Early Action, or Restricted Early Action. And the chances of admission at most schools are substantially higher for those who apply early rather than later. Many counselors and consultants also advise applicants with financial need to apply Regular Decision because they believe that applying early locks them into a school with no opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This is also a misplaced argument. First, those with the most financial need are most likely to benefit from the free room, board, and tuition that is offered by the most selective colleges with the most generous financial aid (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford). Second, all schools allow their applicants an out of a binding admission if they can demonstrate that they cannot afford to attend. Third, many schools are need blind during early admissions, but become need aware later in the admissions process, meaning those with need are even more disadvantaged by waiting to apply.
It is also worth noting that many applicants can have multiple bites of the early admissions apple. Early Decision (ED) limits applicants to applying to only one school and they must enroll if accepted (or forego college altogether unless they can be released from their commitment due to financial or other exigent circumstances). Some of the more exclusive universities that have ED include Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and University of Pennsylvania, as well as some of the most exclusive liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Williams. However, some schools also have an Early Decision Round 2, which allows people who fail to earn admission to their first-choice ED school to apply to another ED school. Although this is no longer an “early” admission, it is binding. More exclusive schools with an ED round 2 include NYU, Pomona, Swarthmore, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Wellesley. Instead of Early Decision, applicants can choose to apply Early Action (EA) which does not bind them to the school should they gain admission. This allows them to apply with an increased likelihood of admission (although not as much of an advantage as ED) without taking away other potential college options. Some of the more selective schools with an EA round include CalTech, Chicago, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Finally, a small number of schools offer Restrictive Early Action (REA) where applicants can apply early and get a non-binding response but can only apply to one school early. This means that they can apply to either a bunch of EA schools, or one REA school, but not a mixture of the two. The four most selective universities in the country happen to offer REA: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Crafting a Story
Another tremendous advantage of applying as a non-traditional applicant is that it is remarkably easy to come across as interesting, accomplished, and intellectually curious to the admissions committee. Most schooled students simply do not have time to be interesting, accomplished, or intellectually curious. They are stuck in required classes in school for 5 to 7 hours per day for 180 days per year for 13 years of their lives, in addition to the all of hours they spend on expected extracurricular activities and sports, required service hours, and the many more hours of homework and studying needed to finish at the top of their class. There is a reason why most high achievers are perpetually exhausted—there is not sufficient time to sleep. Especially for those who come from feeder high schools and the schools that wish they were feeder schools.
On the other hand, non-traditionally schooled applicants are able to lead remarkable, interesting lives. It is not a given that they will, especially for those who attend schools where they have little to no say over how they spend their time, or for homeschoolers who are forced to work though boxed or online curriculum. But when young people have the freedom and time to take learning down pathways that meet their needs, they get to engage in the type of deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that turn them from just another applicant with good numbers into someone who captures the attention of the admissions committee as well as future classmates. When those experiences are coupled with a level of intellectual vitality that rarely survives the k-12 schooling process (because of the coercive nature of schooling), colleges are eager to offer admission and bring these applicants onto campus.
It is not sufficient to have a great story, however. An applicant must also be able to tell a great story, and that is where the college essays and recommendations come in. Telling that story in a way that moves an admissions committee that reads tens of thousands of applications is challenging. It is why a select number of college admissions consultants charge over $20,000 to their clients. But non-traditionally schooled applicants typically have ample essay fodder to work with, and they typically have a sense of purpose or a mission in life that allows them to string that essay fodder into a powerful and compelling personal story.
Almost as stressful as the application process is the decision process once the offers roll in (if an applicant is not bound by an Early Decision offer of admission). Non-traditional applicants have a tremendous advantage over their traditionally schooled peers in picking a college and in taking advantage of the resources available to them at the next level. This is because traditional school applicants have been fighting to get to the top of their high school class, because ranking ahead of peers is deemed necessary to success, and now they are moving on to 13th grade with a vision of climbing to the top of their college class. To too many traditionally schooled students education is about satisfying teachers and competing against peers, as opposed to learning. The non-traditionally schooled person has more likely seen education as a collection of experiences that have allowed them to understand themselves and to grow as intellectuals and humanitarians. Education to them is an opportunity, not a competition, and because of that perceived opportunity they are more likely to choose the college that is the best fit for them, as opposed to obsessing over college rankings. They are also more likely to take advantage of the many opportunities at college that they can use to continue to grow, as opposed to being worried about going down the same path as all of their pre-med and Goldman Sachs bound peers.
Good luck to all the non-traditionally schooled young people out there who are heading into the college admissions season. You have tremendous advantages in the admissions game, but more importantly, you will have tremendous opportunities to make the most of your college experience.
“Far more significant than where you go to school, however, is why and how.”
~ William Deresiewicz
1. Grading also undermines the learning process. Any school that grades their students, fails their students. There is never a reason for an alternative school to engage in this destructive practice.
2. For example, the University of Virginia is one of the most prestigious public schools, often considered a “public ivy,” and offers Virginia community college graduates who meet very reasonable standards a guaranteed admission into UVA, https://admission.virginia.edu/vccsguide
3. Conversation with UT-Austin admissions office, August 1, 2017