My daughter is home-schooled and just started tenth grade. She is possibly interested in engineering as a college major, and we're trying to plan ahead. She took two APs last year and will take three more this year. I have taught (and will continue to teach) all her classes except for one AP course last year (computer principles), one AP course this upcoming year (computer science) and Spanish. So she has very few "outside" grades for freshman and sophomore year. But for junior year, it's likely that almost all of her courses will be through outside providers that give grades. My question is, for competitive colleges, what looks better — AP courses or classes at community college? And should I be concerned that she will only have a total of four outside grades during the first two years of high school?
First, let's pretend that we're back in the "Old Normal" days. We've never heard of COVID-19; most teenagers leave home in the morning although still bleary-eyed in a first-period class, and SATs, ACTs and AP exams are administered in schools and on schedule. In that situation, I'd begin by saying to you, "There are many roads to competitive colleges, but if your daughter were my daughter, I'd recommend the path you're taking — a balance of AP classes and community college classes. Depending on the course and the college, AP classes actually can be more rigorous than their community college equivalents. But for home-schooled students, community college classes show admission committees something that the APs can't — that the student can succeed in a classroom situation and earn top grades that aren't awarded by a parent. Four outside classes is ample. Nothing to worry about there.
Moreover, in a non-coronavirus world, I'd also urge your daughter to take the SAT or ACT along with the corresponding AP exam for each of her AP classes, and possibly, SAT Subject Tests as well, if there's an area that is pertinent to her prospective major but isn't one of her AP subjects. For instance, if your daughter does decide to study engineering but hasn't taken AP exams in physics, chemistry or calculus, these Subject Tests might help her in her admissions quest (if the tests even exist at all in the years just ahead. They are on the chopping block already). While "The Dean" isn't a huge fan of standardized testing, I do believe that these tests can be useful to homeschoolers because they may show that the applicant will be able hold their own in challenging college classes, especially in the STEM fields.
BUT in our current, confusing New Normal world, it's hard to anticipate how the college process will change for your daughter and for her peers who will finish high school in 2023. Certainly, there will be more students than ever before whose transcripts include a portion of their education at home, whether it's through their own high school or not. Admission officials by then should be familiar with applications that include a crazy-quilt of classes taken in different places and via varied means of instruction. Presumably, testing will be offered regularly again, but many colleges that required SATs or ACTs in the past will have dropped this requirement before 2023 and will either be test-optional or entirely test-blind (meaning that they won't consider test results at all!).
Presumably, too, AP exams will be back on the docket, but some applicants will have missed tests for those classes taken during the pandemic. (You don't say whether your daughter took exams for the APs she's already completed. Perhaps in the pandemic pandemonium, she did not ... or maybe she attempted the exams but got snarled in the tech snafus that plagued many testers.) As noted above, it could be wise for your daughter to submit standardized test scores, even when optional. She should also take community college courses in person, not online, but this may not be possible during her sophomore year, and after that, it's likely, but who knows?
So without a crystal ball to determine what lies ahead for secondary schools and colleges, my advice is to keep doing what you're doing ... providing a mix of parent-taught and outside classes. Ideally, some of the latter will be on-site at a community college or even at a four-year college (depending on what's local to you and available). If your daughter is aiming for engineering, she should elect physics, chemistry and calculus at the highest level she can handle — either AP or at a college. And be sure to check back with "The Dean" in a year or so because the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended so many lives, may also upend ... and amend ... the college admissions process as we know it. And that could actually be its silver lining!
About the Ask the Dean Column
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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