College / Materials

Homeschooling High School For the First Time

For the past month I have been drowning in a sea of anxiety. It started innocently enough with a casual reading on a homeschooling discussion forum. The topic was ‘mapping out a rough plan for high school.’ I knew high school was looming, but what I did not realize was how much things have changed in the past three decades.

When I was in public high school in the early 1980s I took the most advanced coursework offered. I remember four years of math, culminating in AB Calculus, 4 years of English and science, 3 years of history and government, and a couple years of Latin. I took all (4) the Advanced Placement courses offered (English, American History, Political Science and Calculus).  Today, students at the top public high schools in the country are taking upwards of 9-12 AP courses. In order to complete the most rigorous coursework offered, as is expected for admission into the nation’s most selective colleges, they must begin planning their high school career by 6th grade. They also spend significant time and money prepping for the infamous SAT (which used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but now stands only for SAT – i.e., recognizing that the test tests neither achievement nor aptitude the ETS decided the acronym was no longer an acronym, just a name)


So, I have spent the last month reading guidebooks, discussion forums and websites devoted to teaching you how to turn your homeschooler into the kind of competitive high school graduate that admissions officers will recognize and embrace. The advice goes something like this: 1) decide whether you are going for no college, non-competitive college, competitive college or really uber competitive college; 2) gather the lists of high school credits required for whichever of the former you choose (e.g. 4 credits of the same foreign language for uber-competitive; 2-3 credits of language for just plain competitive, etc…); 3) plan your sequence of AP courses (if you want to do AP bio then get chemistry in early and begin with conceptual physics, or if you prefer AP physics, focus on math; or do AP everything and cut back on sleeping and eating); 4) If you are not going the SAT route, start planning which SAT II subject tests you will take to verify the rigor of your homeschool classes; 5) start researching online courses, community colleges and coop classes for outsourcing the subjects you do not feel qualified to teach; 6) start planning your extra-curricular hook and your long term volunteer service (admissions officers really want to see this, but it can’t be ad hoc, it has to reflect a deeper commitment to your community); 7) start prepping for the PSAT and SAT.


If you are still confused this chart should make everything crystal clear (and when you are done with hours of research on the preferences of your particular college choice perhaps you could learn something like math or history or geography….)

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

My dismay was reasonable. My oldest child and first high school student is deeply asynchronous, and is never going to fit into this narrow box. She is bright and engaging, deeply logical and analytical, but dyslexic. She is passionate, but most of that passion is focused on an “extra-curricular” activity that takes 35-40 hours a week of her time. At this point she is not even sure she plans to attend college. What’s a highly educated, school loving mama to do?

After mulling this stuff around for a few weeks (like my daughter, I am a slow, deliberate thinker and rarely come to a conclusion without letting my ideas fester for a while) I am finally coming back to a sense of peace and reality. The rat race described above is the traditional, school route to admission to competitive and highly competitive colleges. But, we are homeschoolers. We can never do traditional school better than traditional school. We are not traditionalists and we have never been conformists. We have always forged our own path based on our own goals and values. The college admission landscape is starting to look like a hamster wheel, lots of frantic turning with no way to get off (unless you stop, of course). The price of college has increased at a fantastical rate, but the value, shape and structure of college is increasingly in question (see College Unbound, and Academically Adrift).

Planning for high school is not about credits and transcripts and APs and SATs. It is about keeping our goals in mind. It is about allowing our children to become fully who they are, rather than mapping out the best route to who we think or wish they could be. And, it is about teaching them to think about our changing world in a way that takes the interests of all humans into account. As I previously argued, education is more than just a path to economic prosperity. The pitfalls of our changing economy are indeed frightening, but education cannot be about finding a way to keep my children from tumbling down into the growing pit of “have nots” or “used to haves.”  My child “making it” when so many others are not, is not success at all. I will not sacrifice educating for virtue and justice from a place of peace to  the alter of high stakes competition. High school is just the next step in a life-long journey.

4 thoughts on “Homeschooling High School For the First Time

  1. I know it can feel overwhelming and I agree at first it can look like you have to do “everything” which basically is the same rat race traditional brick and mortar school. I like to encourage families to avoid extremist thinking though. It isn’t all or nothing. It is possible to continue the same spirit of homeschooling you’ve had prior to high school and still keep a range of college options open. For most teens getting in some testing or outside verification in high school doesn’t destroy their high school experience particularly if it is carefully thought out rather than some scatter-shot taking every test under the sun. I’d say on average my students, including those bound for selective schools, put in on average about 100 hours of test prep during high school. This 100 hours doesn’t prevent them from having rich and wonderful lives.

    While it may be easy to view college as all about securing some economic position that’s NOT what I hear from homeschool teens who are college bound. Rather through years of homeschooling they’ve come to view education not as a grind to be cranked through to get a job. They are approaching college with the eagerness to have access to the learning opportunities available on a college campus (intellectual peers, lab facilities, speakers, research opportunities, playing in the chamber group, joining political groups, etc. etc. etc.). A little bit of carefully chosen hoop-jumping in high school can make that more accessible and more affordable. This isn’t the only path by any means, but it is one that a lot of teens end up wanting particularly as they mature.

  2. While I agree that the apparent pressure on all high school aged students is to do AP classes, apply to a dozen schools, do everything fully and test thoroughly, and that this path is not appropriate for all or necessary, I disagree with your judgemental dismissal of homeschoolers who pursue this path. Selective colleges may be the means to a goal for some homeschoolers and their choices are no less valid just because they are not appropriate for your child. Others would see your decisions as limiting your child’s future options. Judgement is a two way street. Much more helpful to talk about the many varied means to ends distinctive to the individuals we are each raising.

    • I’m responding on my own behalf – Jess may have a very different view. I agree, though, that a competitive college can be a reasonable goal for some kids – just not ALL kids. I know some families who chose home school simply to increase the opportunities (and time) their kids will have to deepen the uncommon skills selective colleges seem to look for.
      That said, I think cost is probably a far more important consideration than selectivity, and what you do at college counts (to a certain extent) for more than where you do it. In my experience, very selective graduate and professional schools – and even workplaces – have quite a few kids with degrees from “ordinary” colleges. So if money is an issue, save any way you can on the BA and keep the borrowing to a minimum. Don’t let your kid go into big debt for a BA from a big name school, because with rare exceptions she won’t ever earn enough to retire those loans, and they will be a crippling burden for the rest of her life.

    • There was no “judgmental dismissal” intended at all in this post. Rather, I was commenting on the lunacy of this path for my particular child. I have other children who may well choose a competitive academic path. Who knows? There is always an element of judgement in any considered opinion. I think that is a good thing. I am purposely critiquing the role selective institutions play in solidifying the growing gap between haves and have nots. What others think of my decisions is not particularly important to me.

      I do agree that we need more discussion of the “varied means” possible for high school and college students. The truth is, the vast majority of students will not attend highly selective institutions. Yet, virtually every national article about rates of admission chronicles the woes of those attempting to gain admission to top tier schools, and the shrinking acceptance rates at those schools. Thinking about high school and college in broader, more qualitative terms is exactly what is missing from the discussion, and that is the perspective I am trying to highlight.

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