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A Life Learner's Path to College

A Life Learner’s Path to College
By Karen Hollis
Your child’s interests can form the basis of a most excellent education.

My daughter has always had a strong desire to control her own education. While I was completely happy with this during her younger years, when she hit high school age, I began to Be Very Afraid: My daughter’s interests did not extend to AP courses*, “leadership” roles, competitive sports; she loved music but due to dyspraxia* she cannot play an instrument or keep a rhythm. She did not have an entrepreneurial turn of mind. She didn’t make things. She’s not an artist. She didn’t publish a scientific research paper. In other words, she didn’t have any of the things we are used to thinking that colleges consider mandatory accomplishments during the high school years, without which a student will be at an enormous competitive disadvantage.

* Advanced Placement (AP) is a program in the United States and Canada, created by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. American colleges and universities often grant placement and course credit to students who obtain high scores on the examinations.

* Dyspraxia is a form of developmental coordination disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. It occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. A person with dyspraxia may have problems with movement, coordination, judgment, processing, memory, and some other cognitive skills.

The end result: She applied to twelve schools, because I was so worried about how her unconventional education would look to admissions reps. The schools ranged from the fairly laid back (Lewis and Clark) to the rigorous and demanding (Reed) to the exclusive and elite (Williams, Carnegie Mellon). She was accepted at seven with scholarships of up to a hundred thousand dollars – four colleges hit this figure – put on the priority wait list at Carnegie Mellon, and waitlisted at two other places. Only two turned her down outright.

What was more astonishing was that nearly all the colleges included handwritten notes from the director of admissions commenting on her creativity and imagination, saying these things would be a tremendous contribution to their college.

So what did she do? Her high school years were entirely self-initiated, self-constructed, and eclectic. She taught herself math through calculus using textbooks, and Latin through a third year, but other than that, high school was interest-based and looked nothing like regular school.

Mostly, she read. Her book list, which I uploaded to the Common App [college application website] as a separate transcript, was six pages long and was selected, not inclusive. Her application essay talked about the characters in her head, who they were, what books they came from, why they attracted her so much, how she heard them wittily remarking on events around her, how she would draw on them when she wrote her own book someday.

She wrote when she felt compelled. In ninth grade she wrote lots of fan fiction, then nothing for nearly all of tenth. She kept a commonplace quotation notebook (as did I), with nearly one hundred pages of quotes. She wrote responses to literature in the voice of characters from the book, or a disgruntled author. Yet because of all our discussion and because she had read so widely, when she took community college classes that required formal essays, she had no problems whatever.

My daughter became a theater fanatic at about age seven and we had long scrounged for cheap tickets at amateur theaters and preview nights; by high school, we were subscribers (still to the cheapest seats) at several local theaters. She read theater journals, researched online, read theater history; we attended sessions at theaters by designers and directors; she toured theaters in our home town as well as in London, UK, where she went on a highly anticipated week-long trip while her dad went to a conference there. She toured the recording studios of Digital Theatre Live and watched them editing a filmed performance. We went to filmed performances from London that showed in local theaters. By the time she finished high school, she’d seen over one hundred and seventy-five plays, ranging from community college and amateur theaters to London’s West End. She’d read over seventy-five play scripts and seen nearly one hundred more plays on film or made into movies.

Through theater, we got into history (events plays were based on, history of theater, history of certain productions, history of acting styles, economic and social histories surrounding plays, history of costume design). We talked about some themes, such as the difference between historical and narrative “truth,” for months on end. We compared performances, watched the same play (on film or on stage) with different actors and directors, and talked about it some more.

Once she turned sixteen and was old enough to take community college classes, she took a series of acting classes, which she absolutely adored although her dyspraxia put her at an enormous disadvantage. She also took classes in narrative theory, plays made into films, and one biology class (just to show she could make a non-mommy-given A in science). She joined a nine-person group which toured area high schools performing short scenes. She auditioned for, but was not cast in, the community college plays.

In my counselor letter for the Common App, I talked about her courage in pursuing this aspect of theater, which would always be a problem for her due to her dyspraxia issues and her social anxiety. The school that offered her the highest scholarship specifically mentioned her perseverance in the face of difficulty.

She had not a single AP class, no courses from a four-year university. She didn’t enter or win any contests.

What she did do was demonstrate very clearly that she loved to read, responded with her whole being to literature – not just academically – that she loved theater, more than anything in the world, and that she was passionately committed to furthering her knowledge in those areas, to the point of risking failure and embarrassment in the trying due to her dyspraxia. She showed a mindset of willingness to take risks, of being able to structure and determine what she wanted to learn and how she wanted to go about learning it.

There were so many times that I panicked because she wasn’t “doing anything” with her interests; this was because I was only looking at them in the narrow, limited framework of what schools require. But by allowing her to pursue her interests in her own way and at her own pace, I ended up with a college applicant who impressed admissions committees with her discipline, breadth and range of knowledge, willingness to attempt difficult things, and strong sense of purpose. Colleges do value these things, and as their written comments to her indicate, she stood out precisely because she showed these in unusual ways, ways colleges are not used to seeing in AP-laden kids with tons of outside structured extra-curriculars. There is not a thing wrong with those things if the student loves them, is challenged by them, and pursues them with engagement. But equally, they are not the only path to college admissions by any means.

Following passions, no matter how unconventional or non-academic they seem at the time, can get young adults to exactly the same desirable places that other kids spend all of high school nose to grindstone trying to achieve, with all the attendant pressure and stress.

My daughter had a stress-free high school education in which she grew in confidence and self-knowledge due to following her passionate interests, and this is something I value much more highly than her string of acceptances.

I want to encourage all parents out there who are worried sick about college admissions to trust a bit more in the fact that their child’s keen interests can demonstrate, as much or more than APs or contests, the very qualities that colleges search for and value. It may not seem that way because colleges word what they are looking for after what schools do and teach, and homeschooled kids can do things very differently. But the underlying qualities – curiosity, the search for knowledge, immersion in a field of interest, seeking out or creating opportunities for further learning, questioning conventional wisdom – these are all qualities that can stand out no matter what your child’s particular interest is, and can form the basis of a most excellent education.

Karen Hollis used to be an academic teacher and writer, but while learning with her daughter she began writing very occasionally for home- schooling websites and magazines. She is working on a book about the way her daughter revolutionized the way she thinks about education, leaving no assumption untouched and no truism standing.

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