THE COLLEGE APPLICATION IN PARTS – THE PARENT LETTER OF REFERENCE AND THE TRANSCRIPT
As I pointed out in the first post of this series about applying to college,
[H]omeschooled college applicants have the added obstacle of overcoming the appearance of a lack of objectivity. Typically they are evaluated by one or two people: Mom or Dad. Even if they’ve homeschooled several children, this does not compare with a professional teacher who has taught hundreds, even thousands of children. Thus, while a homeschooled student’s application is not intended to be subjective, it often is assumed to be so.
Why is it often assumed to be so? Because, sadly, it’s often true. In this post we’ll be looking at the two application components that often give the greatest support to the belief that homeschooling parents just can’t be objective when it comes to evaluating their children’s readiness for college. I’ll also provide guidance on how to turn what often is a weakness into a great strength.
The Letter of Reference from a Parent
Despite the pleadings of colleges across the country asking teachers and parents to provide realistic references for their students, too often a letter of reference is nothing but a trumpet blast of praise accompanied by a long list of virtues and achievements. The temptation to write an encomium rather than provide a realistic evaluation is particularly strong for parents. For obvious and praiseworthy reasons, they are emotionally invested in their children and have much to gain by getting them into college. Even so, as I used to tell parents, “It’s a letter of recommendation, not a letter of canonization.”
Now this is not to say that a parent should divulge every fault their child has and every sin he’s ever committed. But leaving out an academic or emotional weakness that could provide insight into how a child may or may not be suited to a particular college curriculum may be setting him up for failure in the long run. (I’ll have more to say on this in my next post.)
Another common fault in many reference letters from parents is the use of vague and flabby statements like this:
“Bill was a joy to raise.”
Well, I hope so. The problem, however, is that this comment fails to answer the fundamental question the admissions committee wants answered: Does Bill have the ability to keep up in a demanding college curriculum? This next statement is a little better:
“Steven is very bright and hard-working.”
While this parent has at least tried to address the key question, it remains only a simple assertion. The parent claims that Steven is bright, but how does the admissions committee know it’s true? Admissions committees want to trust people, but you have to provide them evidence for what you say. This next claim comes a bit closer to the mark:
“Molly has always done well in school.”
This parent has offered some kind of evidence for the claim that Molly is bright: she’s always done well in school. But notice how vague the evidence is. What does “done well” mean? By what standard has she “done well”? Did she do really well because she studied a lightweight curriculum and was never really challenged? There is still very little here for the admissions committee to sink its teeth into.
To avoid these problems, all you need to do is follow what I like to call the “Missouri Rule”: Show Me! Don’t just tell your readers that your child is bright and hardworking; show them by presenting concrete details. Let the readers see your child in action. Here are some examples that will make my point clear.
Suppose a mother wants to get across the point that her daughter writes well, and says, “Sally is a good writer. She works hard at writing.” Much better would be what one mother wrote in an actual letter of reference:
“Sally has always been a leader in my writers’ group, which has ranged in age from students several years older to students a few years younger. Many times, especially in the early years, the other students have contacted her during the week to ask for editing assistance on their papers, doubling and tripling her writing practice and awareness.”
Bingo! This is the prime rib an admissions committee wants to see on the menu, not the thin gruel of vague assertions! By telling Sally’s story with concrete details, this mom has given the admissions committee a chance to see for themselves that Sally is talented and hardworking. It’s as though the committee was there to see her in action!
For another example, suppose that a parent wants to say, “My son works hard even without my hanging over him.” It’s clear here that the parent is aware of what would be persuasive to an admissions committee, but it’s still vague. How could this point be illustrated with vivid detail? (Remember: Show Me!) Consider this excerpt from an application I reviewed:
“He wasn’t content to just learn to serve the Extraordinary Form of the Mass; he read Adrian Fortesque’s thick manual on the subject and proceeded to choreograph and teach his fellow servers in the way a coach teaches plays to a team (to our busy pastor’s delight). And, de facto, he became our parish’s first (and probably most respected) authoritative emcee for the EF since Summorum Pontificum.”
Bravissimo! Thick and juicy sirloin! By telling a vivid story, these parents have overcome the impression that their judgment is subjective and biased. And they have taken advantage of the fact that no one knows those vivid details about the applicant as well as the parent. How likely is it that an outside teacher would know something like this? This is a strength the outside letter of reference simply does not – and often cannot – have.
But the letter of reference is only one opportunity to offer rich detail about your child’s education. Here’s how the homeschooling parent can put together a high school transcript that is actually helpful to the college admissions committee.
To begin with, home school transcripts often come across as unreal. I can’t tell you how many applications I have reviewed from homeschoolers with straight A grades for all four years of high school! The parent may be afraid that a poor grade on the transcript will reduce the odds of their child’s admission, but this isn’t true at all. In real life, plenty of people get good grades in this and poor grades in that, and the committee sees it all the time. Lots and lots of people who got a C in algebra succeed in college! But more than that, the straight-A transcript doesn’t help, because it just gets lost in the flood of homeschooled straight-A transcripts the committee reviews every year. It’s meaningless.
But, you may object: “My child really is bright and hardworking and really has earned A’s in all his courses!” Great: here is your chance to give the admissions committee something even more useful than a transcript from a public or private school.
(Side note: a frequently reliable tell-tale sign that a transcript may be inflated – and this goes for brick-and-mortar school transcripts, too – is the straight-A transcript submitted alongside middling or poor standardized test scores. Yes, there are “bad test-takers.” In fact, I was one myself: I was a member of the National Honor Society and did well in my brick-and-mortar Catholic high school math classes. Nevertheless, my SAT math scores were poor. In my case, even though I had to work very slowly and methodically to do well in math, I could still do the work and provide evidence of it, and in fact was accepted into a college with a challenging math curriculum. A transcript with an A+ in Algebra II alongside an ACT math score in the 25th percentile just doesn’t pass the eyeball test. As we’re discussing, giving legitimate reasons for such potentially eyebrow-raising discrepancies is critical.)
Beyond the Minimal Transcript
Transcripts usually just list courses and grades: it would be too complicated for a big educational institution to do more. But this leaves the admissions committee wondering: What does “English” mean at this school? What is “American History”? And for that matter, what was taught in “Algebra”? If you can simply list the textbooks and source texts used in your homeschool courses, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. I can assure you, an admissions committee will not be impressed that your student took “English”: everybody does. But if they see that your child has read Homer, Shakespeare, Twain and a bunch of other authors I recognize, they’ll feel like they understand your child’s accomplishment.
Next, say something about how your child was graded. What standards and rules were enforced? I sometimes came across statements like this in a college application from a homeschooler: “We have had no set deadlines for assignments.” I wish you would have set deadlines for some things, so your child can practice what it will be like to perform under pressure at college; there is an art to handling a deadline, and it is an art learned only through experience. But still, I appreciate that the parent explained the standard used, because that gives me a better sense of what the grades on the transcript mean.
Here is another statement I sometimes came across: “We had no grading scale; we did things until they were correct.” It’s good that the parent explained how the grading standard worked—I wish every transcript would be so explicit!—but I would urge this parent to consider reflecting different levels of achievement somehow on the transcript. If your child did A-level work on the first try in English Composition but had to re-do his work eight times to get an A in Math, that is relevant information for the admissions committee, and being open with the committee avoids that impression of unrealism I mentioned above.
Whatever your standards are, make them explicit to the admissions committee either in the letter of reference or in a page attached to the transcript. Your transcript may be the only truly useful transcript the committee reviews this year!
But all the indirect testimony in the world, be it a letter of reference, a transcript, or even a standardized test, cannot replace the witness of your student’s own work. In my next post, I’ll share a couple of thoughts about the role of the student essay in the college application.