By Delece Smith-Barrow, Staff Writer | Sept. 21, 2015
When home-schooled students apply for college, the process is pretty similar to what teens from traditional school backgrounds go through. Home-schoolers may write personal statements, take the SAT or ACT and submit a transcript.
When it comes to letters of recommendation, though, many home-schooled students often can’t swing by a guidance counselor’s office to request one. And it may not be clear whether they should ask Mom or Dad when those are people guiding them.
So whom can applicants turn to for letters of recommendation?
“We get that question a lot from home-schooled applicants,” says Andrew Cox, associate dean of undergraduate admissions at The Catholic University of America in the District of Columbia, which received 41 applications from home-schooled students for fall 2015 enrollment.
The answer can vary depending on the schools an applicant is applying to and what his or her home-school experience has been like. Many agree that these letters can be an important component of a student’s application. They allow schools to learn about students beyond their grades, says Cox.
“We see a B-minus on a transcript – we don’t know what all went into that B-minus,” says Cox. The grade could be an underachievement for that student or be the result of that student’s hard work, he says.
College admissions experts suggest home-schooled applicants keep three things in mind when gathering letters of recommendation.
• Speak with admissions staff for guidance: Many home-schooled students take classes at community colleges or through museums, and work with online programs or private tutors, leaving them with several people to turn to for recommendations. Online programs can also help them put together a transcript, provide guidance counselors and assist with other resources.
Applicants who are educated at home in the literal sense, however, and are at a loss about how to get letters of recommendation should speak with the colleges they’re interested in, says Bari Norman, co-founder of Expert Admissions, which guides prospective college students through the application process.
“Have an open conversation, an open line of communication, with each school that you’re applying to,” says Norman, who previously worked in admissions for Barnard College.
“You’ll find, particularly for home-schooled students, that the requirements that each school has can vary a bit more than if you were a traditional student applying,” she says. “They may have some flexibility with the recommendations in terms of number of them or they may want some other pieces of information instead.”
• Do ask people who know you well: As with most applications, schools like to see letter writers speak to a student’s academic strengths.
Elizabeth Dean, a junior at New York’s Vassar College who was home-schooled during high school, asked for letters from instructors she’d developed a relationship with. Dean took several classes at Howard Community College in Maryland as home-schooled student.
“I asked the professors who I had more than once,” she says. “They can see you grow.” She also asked people who could speak to her skills outside of the classroom because she was a member of several student organizations, such as the school’s newspaper and honor society.
“I asked them to write me recommendation letters about how I function as a leader and as a member of a community. Because when you ask for recommendation letters as a home-schooler you have to think about what admissions officers take for granted from a public school student that they wouldn’t take for granted from a home-schooler,” Dean says.
Admissions officers may assume public school students are good at functioning in large groups and in a classroom, and think home-schoolers don’t have these skills, she says. “Finding people who can prove your ability as a leader and your ability to be part of a team can be really key for home-schoolers,” she says.
Experts say applicants can also ask for letters from people outside of their school community. “A coach or a supervisor or an adviser or a mentor, parish priest. These kind of people are the people that we’re looking for to write that letter of recommendation,” says Cox from Catholic University of America. “It does give us a sense of what kind of person a student is, what they’re capable of, what they’ve been doing outside of the classroom, things of that nature.”
• Don’t ask a parent: Even if home-schoolers spend much of high school sitting around the kitchen table following a self-guided curriculum while a parent grades them on biology and trigonometry assignments, a parent isn’t an ideal letter writer.
“I wouldn’t recommend a relative,” says Kelsey Anderson, who works in the University of Iowa‘s admissions office.
At Iowa, applicants are not required to submit letters of recommendation, but they are welcome to do so to better explain their accomplishments and preparation for college. Last fall Iowa received 61 first-year student applications from home-schooled students.
A parent’s or other relative’s inability to speak objectively can weaken a letter of recommendation.
“We hope that a parent wouldn’t have any biased opinions in their recommendation, but, you know, parents can’t help but be proud of their kids,” Anderson says.