College Without High School (New Society Publishers, 2009) shows how teens can pursue alternatives to their high school education by becoming unschooled. Students begin by defining their goals and dreams and then pursue them through a combination of meaningful and engaging adventures. Blake Boles shows how to fulfill college admission requirements by proving five preparatory results: intellectual passion, leadership, logical reasoning, background knowledge, and the capacity for structured learning. He then offers several suggestions for life-changing, confidence-building adventures that will demonstrate those results.
Results Over Volume
First, a thought experiment. Two students compete for the same seat at a top university’s engineering department. The first student — let’s call him Elmo — comes from a large, well-funded public school. Elmo’s application assets include
◆◆3.8 High School GPA (of a capped 4.0)
◆◆A traditional college preparatory course load, heavy in math and science, with two Honors and two Advanced Placement (AP) courses
◆◆AP scores: 3 Physics, 4 Calculus
◆◆SAT Reasoning Test score: 600 Reading/700 Mathematics/600 Writing
◆◆SAT Subject Test scores: 650 Math Level 2
◆◆40 community service hours in a soup kitchen
◆◆Letters of recommendation from Elmo’s calculus teacher, physics teacher and guidance counselor
◆◆A well-written personal essay on the soup kitchen, Elmo’s vague interest in engineering and his favorite high school physics lecture.
The second student — call her Alma — left school in 9th grade to become a full-time unschooler. Alma’s application package (more resembling an artist’s portfolio) includes
◆◆3.8 Community College GPA (of a capped 4.0)
◆◆Six community college courses (completed over two quarters): Calculus, Introductory Physics, Introductory Engineering, English Literature, Political History and Spanish
◆◆A six-week summer seminar in math, science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
◆◆Independent research on medieval war machines, including the construction of a functional trebuchet machine, documented with photos, schematics and journal entries
◆◆SAT Reasoning Test score: 600 Reading/700 Mathematics/ 600 Writing
◆◆SAT Subject Test scores: 650 Math Level 2, 600 Physics
◆◆Six-month internship in a machine tool shop
◆◆Three-month Costa Rica trip (surfing, volunteering and cultural immersion)
◆◆Personal reading list including major works of fiction and nonfiction
◆◆Letters of recommendation from summer seminar director, community college professor and machine tool shop supervisor
◆◆A résumé showing items like a chronological history of studies, projects, internships and travel
◆◆A well-written personal essay on decision to leave school to better learn engineering, the challenges of trebuchet construction and thoughts on the role of technology in developing countries like Costa Rica.
You’re the college admissions officer. Which student — Elmo or Alma — would you choose for the engineering seat?
The Changing Face of College Admissions
You and I are not admissions officers, but we nevertheless sense that the unschooled applicant in our thought experiment, Alma, has a distinct advantage over cut-and-dried Elmo. Elmo did everything a college-bound teen was supposed to do, and he likely worked very hard. To him, working hard in high school was supposed to guarantee his college seat. But another student, without a day of high school to her name, might take it. What’s going on here? The rules of the college admissions game are changing. No high school = no college is an outdated myth. Let’s look at a few of the new rules that make college without high school possible.
More Competition = More Opportunity to Stand Out
You don’t have to be a media junkie to know that college admissions are becoming increasingly competitive. As high school guidance counselors watch dropping college admission rates, they tell their students to work harder. As grade inflation makes the once coveted 4.0 GPA a more commonplace achievement, college-bound high schoolers resign themselves to even more hours of homework each night. A panic, however, is the best time to think smarter — not work harder.
When high schools chug out millions of college applicants, each chanting the same SAT, GPA, Community Service mantra, your opportunity to stand out by doing something unique with your teenage years multiplies. When admissions officers sift through thousands of nearly identical applications, the photo portfolio of your bike trip across South America and independent research on pollution in Buenos Aires shine like diamonds in the rough. More competition is an opportunity to stand out, not a reason to conform.
More Homeschoolers = More Non-Traditional Admissions Opportunities
The fastest growing educational movement in the United States is homeschooling. From 850,000 homeschoolers in 1999 to 1.1 million in 2001 and roughly estimated at 2 – 3 million in 2008 (accounting for projected growth and unreported cases), homeschoolers are putting pressure on colleges to create admissions policies for students without traditional high school backgrounds.
Applying to college as a homeschooler is not the indomitable challenge that it was in the 1980s or earlier. Admissions officers no longer spit out their coffee at the sight of a homeschooling course transcript. Unschoolers still find themselves explaining the concept of self-directed learning more often than not, but on the whole, the rising tide of homeschoolers has softened the path to college admissions for the non-traditional student.
You Can Flaunt Your Academic Muscles Without High School Classes
The four keys to opening the college admissions door, according to Ivy League admissions consultant Don Dunbar, are character (including maturity, social conscience and intellectual passion), a special talent or accomplishment, good standardized test scores and a strong school record (GPA and course choice).2 Dunbar’s audience is Ivybound prep school students, but his keys are nonetheless applicable to college-bound unschoolers. Pursuing your biggest dreams as an unschooler virtually ensures Dunbar’s special talent and character keys. These two flowers grow slowly in the stale air of a classroom but flourish rapidly in the freshness of adventure and independent choice.
Standardized tests (the SATs and ACT) don’t require school; most high schoolers study for these independently outside of the classroom. Advanced Placement (AP) tests are typically tethered to high school courses, but unschoolers can take them online or study independently and test through the high school. And other tests like the lesser-known College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), which proves college-level competency in various academic fields, are equally available to non-traditional students.
Three keys down, one to go. To obtain a school record, unschoolers have two strong tools: community college (also known as junior college) and homeschool transcripts. Community college is the quickest way to get a GPA and structured academic record that put admission officers at ease. Homeschool transcripts involve labeling parts of your unschooling projects with traditional subject names (e.g. physical science, art, sociology, math) and time quantities. When crafted with care and integrity, these transcripts give colleges the numbers they need to compare your school record to those of other applicants.
The Internet Levels the Intellectual Playing Field
The information technology revolution of the 80s and 90s (and continuing today) changed how humans seek and access information. In an earlier era, going to a central depository of information (like a high school or a library) may have been the best way to gather esoteric facts, but today, you can do that from your computer.
If you want to learn political science, you can watch university lectures via webcast. You can research the Cuban Missile Crisis on Wikipedia. You can read blogs by top economists, watch international protests on YouTube and get book recommendations from online focus groups. In light of these nearly free resources available at your fingertips, doesn’t relying on a school library and an overburdened teacher for learning political science seem a bit outdated? The idea that learning only happens in school is a terrible crutch for any student who embraces it fully.
Some Who Have Done It
Don’t just take my word that unschooling can lead to admissions to top colleges. Now let’s listen to the stories of a handful of real teens who walked the unschool-to-college path in recent years. Of the dozens of non-traditional students who have shared their college entrance stories with me, I chose seven who represent a wide variety of personal interests, admissions strategies and academic ambition. What these students have in common, of course, is that they all have little (or zero) traditional high school to their names. The numbers in parentheses indicate their year of admission.
Charlotte Wagoner – Rockhurst University (2007)
Charlotte started unschooling at the beginning of high school, supported by her parents who had recently attended a speech by John Gatto about empowering young teens. At age 15 she enrolled at Penn Valley, part of the Metropolitan Community Colleges in Kansas City, where she took general education courses. After researching various majors and transfer programs, Charlotte decided that she wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree at Rockhurst University (a private university in Kansas City).
Applying to Rockhurst proved quick and easy; Charlotte signed up for Transfer Day at Rockhurst and talked with an admissions advisor who gave her an idea of entrance requirements. The ACT and SAT tests worried her because she hadn’t prepared for them, but Rockhurst ultimately did not require them of her. Charlotte applied online and was accepted with over 50 transfer credit hours from Penn Valley and numerous scholarships, declaring her major in International Business and soon enrolling in the university’s 5-year MBA program.
College Without High School preprinted with permission from Blake Boles and published by New Society Publishers, 2009.