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How to Stand Out to Colleges - 5 Characteristics to Market to Colleges

Do you ever wonder why seemingly rational and prestigious colleges will yearly award millions of dollars of merit-based scholarships to fresh-out-of-high-school, wet-behind-the-ears teens? When our 16- and 18-year-old sons were awarded $184,000 in merit-based scholarships to attend their first-choice university, I have to admit I did. Gazing into the train wreck that was their bedrooms, I often asked myself: "What were they thinking?"

Here's a hint – universities don't grant merit scholarships out of a sense of duty or altruism.

It helps to remember that colleges are, first and foremost, businesses. They are making an investment. It is an investment that in the future, these same confused, unkempt students will be the movers and shakers in society. They hope that in due time the students will shine a bright light back on the university that shaped them. Will they succeed and make the college proud? Will they go on to leadership positions in society? Will they ultimately earn enough money to leave an endowment? These questions play a significant, if perhaps subconscious, role in admissions decisions.

As parents, you can use this insight to help your teens. Sometimes I think talking about marketing your teens to colleges sounds a bit insolent. But if you think about it, marketing is simply the act of representing someone or something in the best possible light. It is what I do every morning when I ask my increasingly lonely hair to cover more and more forehead real estate.

Colleges Admissions - A Jaded Bunch 

As parents, we all think our children are gifted and talented. Homeschool parents – who typically have invested much of their adult lives actively helping their children develop – may experience these feelings stronger than most. Unfortunately, college admissions officers are a pretty jaded bunch. They have seen a LOT of "gifted" teens cross their threshold and have learned how to pretty quickly discern the hype from the real thing.

The first key then, in successful marketing of your teen to colleges is to ensure they are the "real deal." What that means is to design your homeschooling so that in the end, you child emerges educated, self-confident, wise (relatively speaking), self-motivated and morally upright. Not an easy goal, but one that homeschooling parents seem achieve more regularly than any other parent group in our society.

They do this because they themselves are typically educated, self-confident, wise, motivated and morally upright. A gross generalization, to be sure, but parents who aren't these things tend to quickly drop out of homeschooling. Those who are left usually have the "right stuff" to guide and educate their children. In addition to these character traits, homeschool parents have the one other key ingredient that no school, from the worst inner-city institution to the most prestigious prep academy can replicate: a true love for their child.


The question then, is how to best demonstrate this to colleges. The good news is that homeschooling is no longer a novelty. Colleges – even the most prestigious ones - have enough experience with homeschoolers that they no longer look at you like you are fresh off Gilligan's Island.

This is good because historically, the first step to gaining college acceptance was convincing them that homeschool kids were just like "normal kids." This might sound like a pretty low standard but without those early homeschool pioneers on the college campuses, homeschool students might still be kept at arm's length.

So, without having to fight to justify their "normalcy," homeschool parents can focus on presenting the more refined characteristics of their students. Here are a few key areas where parents can help their students communicate effectively during the college application process.


Lee and I often laugh about the "homeschool 4.0" – the default grade on many homeschool transcripts. But is there anything wrong with this strategy? Not as long as two conditions are met. The first is to structure your homeschool around the concept of mastery.

Our oldest son graduated from homeschool high school with a perfect 4.0, even though he got a C in Algebra 1. How can this be? Well, like many homeschool families, we looked at a C as unacceptable – an indication that mastery wasn't achieved - so we changed curriculum and tried again. With the right curriculum, Kevin understood Algebra differently, and consequently, earned his 4.0.

This is not unusual and represents one of the key strengths of homeschooling – the tendency of homeschool parents to demand mastery before moving on. One brief caveat – mastery is not the same as perfection. I have achieved mastery over addition and subtraction, but if you looked closely at my checkbook, you would quickly discover imperfections. You achieve mastery over concepts, even if an occasional error is made.

The second condition of granting the homeschool 4.0 is to ensure you have some outside documentation supporting your assertion. That can come in the form of CLEP® tests, SAT® or ACT® scores, community college grades, letters of recommendation from people outside the family, or even external evaluations. Please remember, however, that you don't need to spend money on an outside accreditation agency to validate your homeschool. You can get this external documentation in other ways. I mention it only as a last resort in case the other options aren't possible.

So, as long as you can validate your homeschool 4.0 with good external documentation, feel free to grant it. On the flip side, don't be afraid to give lower grades if they truly reflect your student's performance. Honesty and internal consistency are key. 


So much has been written about this subject that I am hesitant to say much more about it here. Suffice it to say that homeschoolers have the advantage on socialization since they spend their childhood socializing across a broad spectrum of ages, classes and cultures. They are not limited to narrow socialization by age and status that you find in a typical American high school. Consequently, when they are called on to interact with adults in the college admission process, they often feel right at home.

Socialization was, in fact, the deciding character feature when my boys brought home two of full-tuition scholarships. Since all 108 kids who were invited to the full day scholarship competition had great grades and high test scores, the admissions official told us that they were looking at social skills as the deciding criteria. How well did these young scholars interact with one another, with the faculty, with the staff on campus when they thought no one was looking? Irony of ironies, my homeschoolers took two of the ten scholarships awarded based on socialization!


Closely related to socialization is character. How well have your family values been absorbed by your kids? I have learned that character development is in direct proportion to the time spent with your kids. The "quality time" argument is a crock! What truly matters is "face time" that can be collected by the bushel load when you are teaching your kids for 4 to 6 hours a day at home. The reason you don't hear about the negative effects of peer pressure in homeschool families are the "peers" are typically siblings, who are all being nurtured by the same loving set of parents.

In college admissions, character comes through best in the application essays. Encourage your teen to write about experiences that highlight their character. Brainstorm with them on the ways that they have given themselves away to others during their childhood and adolescence. Did they come with you when you volunteered at church or in the community? If so, what did they learn? Did they ever visit shut-ins with you? How did that affect them? Character is one of those traits that is caught, rather than taught so make sure your students can formulate those lessons into stories.


This one is my favorite lessons because of the delightful serendipity involved. I mean, who would have guessed that my unwillingness and/or inability to re-educate myself on higher level high school math and science would help, rather than hurt, my children? I mean, when has my laziness EVER turned out so well? In this case it did. My kids had to learn the stuff and since Lee and I felt incapable of teaching it, they had to make do themselves. And they did. With just a little money thrown at the problem (buying a good curriculum and video tutorial) my boys basically taught themselves calculus and physics. The results were twofold. First, they learned how to be self-taught. Second, they experienced the satisfaction associated with doing it themselves.

Lee and I noticed that the more we neglected teaching, the better my boys learned! Why? Because they knew they had no one to count on but themselves and they better get it done if they wanted to have any summer vacation at all!

Help your student reflect on the benefits of academic self-reliance and communicate this on their application essays. They might be a bit skeptical at first, but I'm sure with a bit of effort you can successfully make the case that your laziness was all part of the "master plan."

Incidentally, if you encourage self-reliance, you are doing your teen a favor that will pay dividends when they go to college. Ironically, a favorite expression of university professors given to their freshman population is "I am not your parent." This is supposed to impress the point that no one will be babying the students about getting their work done. But our boys discovered that their professors were JUST like their parents (only way smarter.) They already knew how to learn on their own so they started college with a tremendous advantage over their spoon-fed peers.


If you do well on the other four areas (academics, socialization, character, and self-motivation,) leadership skills will often emerge naturally. To be a leader, one must first WANT to be a leader. Often, the first step in wanting to be a leader is to lead something successfully yourself. You might consider this a bit of a Catch-22, but recognize that by promoting healthy attitudes about academics, socialization, character and self-motivation, you are providing your student that critical first leadership experience: leading themselves.

Surprisingly, this works regardless of the personality type of your student. My first-born was always shy and demure. As a baby, we didn't hear a peep from him for what seemed to be months. Probably because he didn't want to be a bother. My youngest, however, was born loudly demanding his rights! If he could have got his hands on a knife, I'm pretty convinced he would have cut the cord himself. You might think that leadership would be reserved for my youngest. The truth is, however, that both of my boys are leaders – in their own way. The youngest wants to lead for a living as a politician. The oldest is leading in each situation he finds himself in (the classroom, on projects, with his chess students, etc.) One leads loudly, one leads quietly.

When dealing with college applications, it is pretty easy for extroverted teens to highlight leadership. Identifying leadership in the quiet teen is a bit more of a challenge. The quiet ones may not recognize their leadership at all. In such cases, you may need to gently point it out to them. But whether or not they see it in themselves, it is often recognized by outsiders. By the time my youngest, Alex, applied for college he had amassed quite an impressive resume of leadership positions. But my oldest, Kevin, demonstrated his areas of quiet leadership during the full-tuition scholarship competition, and also came away with the big prize.

Social Dancing 

My younger son has become a big fan of English Country dancing. As opposed to what passes as "normal" teen dancing, English Country is a delightfully social dance. The entire room must be in tune for the dance to succeed. Similarly, college preparation is a social dance for the whole family. Mom and dad play a secondary, yet critical role in developing the "dance skills" that will get their teens noticed by the colleges. They are the "callers" in the English country dance. They set the patterns and demonstrate how it is done properly.

There has been much talk about the emergence of "helicopter parents." These are parents who throw their full influence and attention to the task of college admissions. I liken this "helicopter," however to the ones that do emergency airlifts. The patient (student) is in critical condition already so mom and dad feel compelled to rescue them. Homeschool parents don't have to be in that position, however. They have the time to develop their kids in a way that is natural and healthy. No "emergency intervention" is required, because their kids have grown up in a nurturing and loving environment and can now step into the world with confidence.

 Blue Chip Teens

The world eagerly awaits the next generation of leaders to emerge and, when they do, I promise they will get noticed. Parents, you don't have to "bang a gong" to draw attention to your kids. Let their character, words and actions speak for themselves. In a generation filled with the human equivalent of junk bonds, colleges are desperate to find and reward the blue chips. For more and more colleges, homeschool teens have proven to be that solid investment.


Matt Binz (husband of Lee)

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