How to Find the
in College Application Essays
I received an email from a student named Hannah who told me she was homeschooled, and that she had been advised to write about that for her college application essay.
Hannah said she was having “trouble thinking of anything unique or super meaningful” from her homeschooling experience.
I gave this some thought, and here’s what I would advise:
Homeschooling is something unique and special in itself.
And that’s a good thing.
But as an essay topic, it’s way too broad and most likely written about by a lot by other homeschooled students, so it risks being overdone already. (More than 3 percent of school age kids are home-schools; more than 1.5 million.)
I would put homeschooling in the list of topics that are often red-flagged by those in the college admissions industry because it is either cliche, or written about too often or too general.
But like some of those other red-flagged topic ideas—such as experiencing an intense personal issue, such as death, illness or injury, or an extreme background, such as being a triplet, or being raised in an extreme religion or unusual culture—these issues often cannot helped but to have defined or shaped the student in some fundamental way.
It’s almost as though you can’t help but write about that issue.
I think being taught at home, usually by a parent, falls in that category. And it’s even more relevant since you are applying to college and homeschooling addresses the essence of education and learning.
Homeschooling Can Be an Edge, But You Need to Sharpen It
Also, when you are trying to standout from other students, having a homeschooling (or “unschooling”) background already helps set you apart.
You just need to take that another step forward, and show your unique homeschooling experience and personality as well.
My advice for anyone considering writing about a red-flag topic is to make sure not to just write about that topic (“How I was homeschooled…”), but to find something specific and meaningful that happened while you were homeschooled.
Then you can use that real-life moment or incident as a platform to not only illustrate something larger about yourself or the homeschooling experience, but also to help engage and connect with the reader with a relatable story.
To give your essay about your homeschooling experience a sharp focus and make sure it reveals something specific about yourself, I would try to think of a real-life mini-story that reflects one of your defining qualifies or characteristics.
Another way to find a compelling story to share would be to think of “a time” that homeschooling was a problem for you, or that you encountered some type of problem related to your homeschooling experience.
That will make sure the moment you share was interesting and something happened, and it will also involve at least one of your defining qualities or characteristics.
The Trick is To Focus Your Topic
So those are a few ways to approach the general topic of homeschooling, and find a focus that will narrow the topic into something compelling to write about.
And your essay will be interesting to read, and also give you a place to reflect and analyze your broader experience as someone who was homeschooled.
Do you see the difference?
There’s a huge chance that being homeschooled shaped you in a fundamental way, especially how you think about the world and learn.
If you can find a specific unusual or unexpected example from your experience, and share that in your essay, it will not only help us understand you, and what you value, but also showcase your “intellectual vitality,” which colleges love.
And remember (Hannah!) that smaller experience did not need to have been momentous, impressive or dramatic. Often, the simple, everyday (mundane) moments or interactions can fuel the more effective essays.
Let’s brainstorm some examples:
How about debunking some of the myths around homeschooling?
- Off the top of my head, I would think people think students don’t get as much socialization. Maybe write about that, and share some of the extremes your parent-teacher went to to make sure you were around other kids. Bet there are some interesting moments from those efforts.
- Or how about that students who are homeschooled didn’t learn the “right things?” You could write your essay about the unusual types of things you learned, and how they are actually more relevant or meaningful. Start with an example of something esoteric you learned about, and go into how it turned out to be very relevant in your life.
- Another idea. How about that homeschooled students won’t be able to learn in a traditional school environment. Was there “a time” when you had this tested? Share that experience and what you learned.
- Some people might assume students who are homeschooled are all alike, and come from families with similar values and practices. If your family did not fit this stereotype, write about that. Start with an example of how your family is not like other homeschooling families, and share the good and bad of that experience, and what you learned.
- Last one. What about the reason you were homeschooled in the first place. Did it involve some type of problem (bullied at old school; dyslexia; live in middle of nowhere…)? That could be a great place to start with your essay.
See! Tons of ways to write about homeschooling and find unusual or unexpected angles to share your unique experience. Like all effective college application essays, the key is to make them highly personal.
Remember, make your essay about you and something specific about your unique homeschooling experience, and not only about the virtues of homeschooling.
There’s no better way to set yourself apart from others.
And prove that yes, homeschoolers do go to college—and get into some of the best ones!