There are many articles written about how to get your high school student into college. Whether written for homeschoolers, or for students in the public and private school systems, the articles often address the same issues from the perspective of being a student. However, the question many parents and students should be asking is, "How do colleges view you?" By shifting our perspective and putting ourselves in the position of the college, we can gain some unique insights.
What do colleges and universities care about? (For the sake of ease, we will use the word "college" interchangeably in the place of school, university, and college, even though technically they are not the same thing.) Like it or not, every college is a business--even those who call themselves public and get state funding. They all have budgets and income, and most are money machines. Therefore, we ask the chief question: What brings in the college's income? Answer: Students and/or research.

  • Students: Many colleges focus on teaching, which means their main source of income comes from students paying tuition or bringing in scholarship dollars. Public colleges are often tied to strict parameters concerning student attendance and graduation rate in order for the state to continue funding. As a result, the reputation of the college, and possibly their income as a whole, often rests on the quality of performance reflected in the student body. To attract quality students that will increase overall performance and thereby attract other students who will perform well academically, colleges will offer scholarships. Their standard tools of measurement for the students to which they should offer these scholarships are the ACT and SAT. If your students can increase the college's numbers by scoring above average on the ACT or SAT, the more likely they will be to receive a scholarship. Many scholarships are simply marketing dollars, used to buy the students with good scores so the school's marketing numbers are better.

  • Research: Some large universities will hold higher SAT and ACT standards in order to limit enrollment when research serves as a significant portion of their income.

The point becomes this: Colleges do not enroll high schools--they enroll students. Most colleges are well aware that homeschoolers make great students and encourage them to apply. But all colleges want good students. So if your student scores high on the college entrance exams, this will increase their chances of getting into the school of their choice. Most scholarship money is committed early in the senior year of high school, so start contacting colleges as early as your child expresses an interest. Since many colleges have multiple requirements for receiving a scholarship, contacting colleges by the 10th grade is usually best. Even if your child has no particular college they are interested in, contact the obvious choices such as local universities. As your homeschooler starts expressing interest in a particular discipline, you can contact the chairmen of specific academic departments. Often these departments will have their own requirements and sometimes even have their own scholarships. Remember: A college, as a business, will readily spend money when it will benefit their establishment, but they are not going to just give away money to your student because they are nice. They are business people, not philanthropists.

How to Prepare
People often struggle over what to do to prepare. Even though asking specific questions to specific colleges is recommended, there are some basic elements that apply across the board: The ability to read, write, and do arithmetic. Perhaps this sounds too simplistic, but this is the fact. It is not a solid hold on lots of grammar type material, but application that counts. Can your student express their ideas in writing? Can they do the math conceptually, not just crunching numbers but applying the mathematics to reach a purpose? In other words, do they know what a certain math concept is meant to accomplish in real life, or have they just memorized a formula? Can they comprehend and analyze reading material? These are the areas tested by the ACT and the SAT. The SAT and ACT tests are right on target, as a student's score on these tests often serves as a good indicator of their performance on a college level.
Be careful that you understand these tests. Many people think you can cram for them, preparing only in the last few weeks or months before the test is offered. While you can improve your ability to understand the tests and do better, these tests are designed not to allow time for much debate--you either know the material or you do not. For instance, on the math sections, you typically have 1 minute per problem. There is simply no time for the hard core number crunching to solve problems. You have to prepare through your curriculum choices in high school. Avoid materials in upper level math that have lots of drills and incremental learning without the accompaniment of conceptual application and understanding.