Putting Together a High School Transcript for an Unschooler

Lisa asked: My always-unschooled 17-year-old has always been adamant that college isn’t on is to-do list — but now, just as he’s getting ready to start what’s technically his senior year this fall, he’s fallen in love with a fairly traditional college (with a reputation for being tough on homeschooled applicants) and made up his mind that’s what he wants to do next. I want to support him, but I have no idea how to pull together a high school transcript (which his dream college does require) when we’ve done very little formal schoolwork for high school. Can you help?

Obviously your life right now would be a little easier if you’d been keeping careful records for your son’s high school transcript since eighth grade, but honestly, it’s no big deal that you’re just starting to think about it at the end of junior year. (I’m not sure if it’s exactly comforting, but there’s a not-small percentage of homeschool parents who don’t start thinking about transcripts until their student’s senior year is ending — and many of them do just fine pulling them together even at that very last minute.) Putting together this transcript is totally doable.

Start with a simple transcript template like this one so that all you have to do is fill in the blanks. (Transcripts for very traditional colleges are one place where creativity doesn’t really pay off — you’ll usually fare best if your transcript looks like everybody else’s.) Now look at the college your son has his sights set on: What core academic classes does it require for incoming freshman? Often, the requirements look something like this: 4 units of English, 2 units of algebra, 1 unit of geometry, 1 unit of trigonometry, calculus, statistics, or other advanced math, 1 unit of biology, 1 unit of chemistry or physics, 1 unit of additional science, 1 unit of U.S. history, 1 unit of European history, world history, or world geography, 2 units of the same foreign language, and 1 unit of visual or performing arts.

Just because he hasn’t been checking off boxes for the past three years doesn’t mean he hasn’t been learning — which you know, of course, but which can be easy to forget in the face of a form full of those boxes.

Now a list like this might initially make you feel kind of panic-y because it seems like the most structured thing ever and your problem is that you’ve got almost no structured stuff to draw on, right? In fact, though, a list like this is a great thing for homeschoolers because it helps you focus in and figure out how all the learning your son has been doing might fit into a more traditional framework. Just because he hasn’t been checking off boxes for the past three years doesn’t mean he hasn’t been learning — which you know, of course, but which can be easy to forget in the face of a form full of those boxes. For instance, all that time he spent hatching tadpoles, creating microscope slides, growing carnivorous plants, dissecting owl pellets, and volunteering at the zoo? That might add up to Biology. Or the year he spent reading every Philip Dick book and comparing the books to movie interpretations of them? That’s comparative literature in action and can count as a semester of English. What about math? Frankly, if you haven’t done organized classes, the simplest thing to do may be to just to ask your son to take a few placement tests to see what math he’s mastered — then you can list the maths he’s mastered on his transcript. As you realize how much your son has actually accomplished over the past three years, his transcript will fill in pretty quickly — and you may be tempted to get whimsical with course names and descriptions, but if the school he’s aiming for really is super-traditional, it really is best to just keep it as simple as you can: Biology, rather than Exploring the Natural World, or Literature: Science Fiction instead of The Worlds of Philip Dick. Yes, coloring inside the lines is a little boring, but you’ve happily lived outside the lines (and can continue to do so). This is just a hoop that you’ll jump through more easily if you present your out-of-box experiences in a form that fits neatly into the admission committee’s boxes. (Plenty of colleges are receptive to homeschool resumes and appreciate the kinds of interest-driven classes that homeschoolers have the opportunity to take. You just want to know what the school you are applying to is looking for.)

After all this list-making, you may have some holes — but you’ve got his entire senior year to fill them. Don’t worry if you have multiple classes to fill in — maybe you need to cover geometry and trigonometry or take two English classes. This is pretty easy to manage with a little strategic planning. Sit down with your son, and come up with a game plan for what to do over the next year so that his transcript matches up with the requirements for his dream school. (If you need to, you can set your graduation date for the end of summer instead of spring to get a little more time. Remember, you’re the one who has the power to determine your academic year.)

You don’t mention whether you’ve been doing any outside classes, but if you haven’t, make sure to enroll in a couple this fall. They’ll make your transcript a little easier, yes, but they’ll also connect you to other teachers who can help describe your son’s achievements and college suitability when the time comes to start soliciting teacher recommendations for your application. You can handle the transcript thing on your own, but you will definitely benefit from having outside, unbiased teachers for your son’s teacher recommendations.

Good luck! It can feel intimidating to tackle this on your own, but just like every other part of homeschooling, taking it one step at a time and keeping your student top of mind will get you through.

This Q&A was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of HSL.