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How to Start the Path to College

  • Dr. Dale and Cassidy Callahan Contributing Writer
  • Published May 22, 2015
How to Start the Path to College

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.

Steps on Your Path

  1. Read and write. Have your homeschooler reading and writing. Write about anything from their likes and dislikes to assigned reading, but have them express themselves and their thoughts. Make sure they know how to develop a point and express it with effective articulation. The grammar and spelling, while important, should function as support and not the focus A hillbilly can be more effective than a man with a doctorate in English language studies if the hillbilly can present his ideas with accuracy.
  2. Do not skimp on the math. Statistically, the better scores on the math section of the ACT and SAT are achieved by the students who have had more exposure to higher level mathematics courses in high school. The raw evidence can be seen by visiting the ACT and SAT websites. Prepare in high school by using materials that encourage students to understand and apply math--not just work problems. According to HSLDA, homeschoolers are just barely better than public schools in math--often because of the poor selection of material and the lack of math education parents think their children need. Once again, we highly recommend avoiding programs that emphasize learning by repetition. The "learn by repetition" method works quite well in the lower grades, but a good score on the ACT and SAT will require concept analysis, not just memorization of some facts and formulas. Because of this, programs such as Saxon can be excellent in the lower grades, but aren't a good choice at the high school level.
  3. Prepare for the ACT and SAT. You must understand how the tests are put together. The writers who create these tests are required to include distracters--false answers to the question which will seem plausible and thereby "distract" the student from the right answer. This method tests how firmly a student grasps the concept being presented. Preparing for the tests using ACT or SAT study guides can help you understand the process and prepare. A student who has the knowledge and education to score extremely high on the ACT/SAT could still get a low score simply because they were not ready for the testing methods. Practice! Practice! Practice! Meet your own potential.

Find the Right Path
Most importantly, a student must discover their goals. It is no secret that many students change paths in college--usually two or more times. The high school years are a great opportunity for exploration. First, encourage your student to pray about his or her future and the direction God might want them to take with their life. Then seek out other individuals whose jobs interest your student and ask them about their careers. Explore several passions and interests and see how people with similar interests put them to work in real life. Get the student to take jobs not just to earn money, but to learn about what might be an interesting career move.
A word of caution to students: Many people do all of their exploring through close friends and relatives. This is useful, but limited. Reach out and seek out people who are doing things which are interesting, even if they are outside your "circle." Most people are more than willing to tell you about what they do and how they came to do it--and often a few well-placed questions can land a high school student a temporary job to try things out. Be aware that you will not walk into a big office with a view on your first day out Mama's front door just because you smiled well. Be respectful and willing to do the grunt work and people will help you get where you want to go. Your sincere interest will be respected.
A word of caution to parents: College faculty members know very well how to be college faculty. These individuals are knowledgeable and useful sources of information. However, when having your student investigate different career opportunities, the best source of information is someone who is currently holding a position in that field of interest.
College is often the launching pad for a successful career in the future. Recognizing how colleges work, as well as providing a solid educational foundation with ACT and SAT preparation in high school can be critical steps on the path to college. As parents, you will spend a lifetime giving your kids an education that will allow them reach their dreams and pursue God's calling in their lives. Don't let poor planning now prevent them from getting the training and preparation they need.

Dr. Callahan is founder of the AskDrCallahan video math series for high schoolers. Dr. Callahan has 15 years of experience in the telecommunications industry and holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. His wife Lea has a masters degree in electrical engineering and has co-taught the high school math and physics classes they offer. They have 4 children and have homeschooled 2 through high school.

Cassidy Callahan is producer of AskDrCallahan, a high school curriculum company for homeschoolers. She is a 3rd year English major at the University of Montevallo. In her free time she enjoys launching model rockets, painting, three dogs, a cat, and a horse.

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec '06 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more details, visit