High school at home – mapping out the path to University

It is a fact of home schooling that there are a lot less families who home school in the high school grades than there are for younger learners. Much of the reason for this is that families worry about providing the kind of high school education that will allow their student to get in to university (of course there are families that will chose to move to mainstream schooling for other reasons, such as socialisation, access to extra-curricula activities or other things). I see this a lot in the UK, where home schooling (or home education as it is known there) is less prevalent, and consequently there is a lot less understanding of how to go about home educating in the higher grades, especially A-Level equivalent. Chances are Willem will be going to university in the UK*, so this post is going to have a heavy focus on what it takes to go down that route, but hopefully there is going to be some good general information whatever country you are schooling in and/or your learners plan to attend higher education.


How do I know what I need to know?

Part of the problem when you are schooling ‘outside of the system’ is that you are not involved in the discussions and preparations that kids get when they are at school. Your expectations might be based on what you needed to do to get in to university or college, which have changed. Or perhaps you are in our position – we both went to university in Australia yet it is likely Willem will go to university in the UK. So how do you know what you need to do?


First port of call is to start looking at university websites and what their entry requirements are.



If you are in the UK and wish to follow the UK system you need to look at your student completing the relevant A-Levels. Most students in the UK will study for their A-Levels between the ages of 16 and 18 in sixth form, sometimes at a specialist sixth form college. However it is possible to study for A-Levels independently, the only requirement being that you organise to take exams or submit course work as required. A good starting point for information about this option is here. There is also the option of enrolling in sixth form college only for the subjects you are interested in taking. If your student is under 19 tuition is free unless you specifically choose a fee-paying school. It can be difficult sometimes to get your student enrolled as colleges will expect things like GCSE results and often a reference from the student’s former school. However contacting the admissions office and talking to them about your situation and asking for an interview often results in finding out how you can work with their requirements to your benefit. Advantages of sixth form colleges include access to things like science labs, a introduction to college style learning such as lectures, and guidance when it comes to applying for university or vocational training.


Other alternatives

Other UK alternatives are the Cambridge Pre-U system (though as far as I am aware this is not available for independent learners) and Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers which are like AS and A-Levels. Another alternative I have heard of British learners using is Open University.


If you are following another schooling system for your learner, you should still start with university websites, only now you should be looking at the entry requirements for International Students.  So if you are following a US high school styled program, you will most likely need SAT or ACT results to a minimum score plus Advanced Placement and/or SAT subject tests in relevant subjects with certain minimum results to be considered eligible for consideration.  It is worth noting that just a  US high school diploma is not going to be sufficient to get in to most British Universities – think of sixth form as being more akin to dual enrolment than the last two years of US high school, and you see the standard that is expected.


What if you are not following any country’s educational system? If you plan for your learner to go to university in the UK, in almost all cases you are going to have to find some form of public examinations you are comfortable with and prepare to use those. Exceptions to this could be if you student plans to study in a field where entrance is through audition or submission of a portfolio, though you will most likely still need to show a competency in Maths and English which can be difficult without test results (well not difficult to prove per se, but to prove in a way that is acceptable to the institution you are applying to.) As before, contact the types of institutions your learner might be interested in attending and start getting a feel for what is required. But in most cases, high school at home in the UK, if you plan on attending a university there, is going to involve formal testing.


Our Example – how we are doing high school at home

We had Willem sit down and think and talk about what he wanted to do when he finished school. Now it might seem that at not yet 13 that is asking a bit much of a kid – at his age I was still trying to decide between being a fashion designer or an opera singer 😀 – but in his case he has been pretty consistent since the age of four saying that he wanted to be a scientist (back-up careers include being a ballet dancer or setting up a small business and making and selling jewellery in Japan). So our next task was to find out what you needed to do in order to become a scientist. This led us to looking at what degree programs he should be preparing for.

For various reasons we moved away from a UK style (GCSEs and A-Levels) style high school program to a US high school diploma, so when looking on university websites I looked at the information for US International students.

There is one particular degree program Wim is interested in, and to be blunt it is a very difficult to get in to. So working on the basis that we would start with that course as our benchmark I contacted the enquiries email, and while I wrote a pretty detailed description of what we were currently doing and asked a lot of questions about what was required, I expected a boilerplate standard reply with perhaps a bit of tweaking since we are home educating.

And here is where the real surprise came in.

I had multiple, detailed responses that gave us all the guidance we could have hoped for as to what he needs to apply, how he should go about applying when the time comes, and offers that if we had any more queries please don’t hesitate to contact them (I am not going to name the exact course, but it was Oxford University in case you are wondering). And as for what was required – the short answer is not much, but what he does have to do is to a very high standard. There is no need for a high school diploma. He needs to score very well on the SATs or ACT (and there is no requirement for the essay portion of the SAT) and he needs to do relevant SAT or APT tests in Physics and Maths and score highly in those. The important factor is the Oxford administered Physics Aptitude Test, interviews and an academic reference letter. To quote one of the emails I received

We are interested in students’ performance in formal public exams, so the ‘full high school transcript’ is not required.

Now, this is not to say that Willem is not going to learn languages, or history, or music, or English. He is. But the pressure of making sure we have a set number of credits in a set number of subjects, and providing the accepted form of recording what he has done – nope. To be honest the thought of concentrating on a few set subjects, and teaching him how to research and write papers, with the rest of his ‘school’ being dedicated to turning out a well-rounded, curious, well-read learner rather than one who is covering subjects because we have to fill a transcript is a prospect that is making me happy.


What if he changes his mind?

Of course, he may wake up and decide he doesn’t want to do Science, he wants to study Classics. Or accounting. Or teaching. Heck, I decided six weeks out from submitting my university course choices – after I had done all my auditions – that actually I didn’t want to study to be a musician, the thing I had concentrated on during Senior high school to the point I moved to the other end of the state to study it (and used as an excuse to skip a lot of classes I really should have gone to). I get that people change their minds. So we have checked the requirements, and the fact stands that if he does the SAT or ACT he will most likely be fine, or just have to pick up one or two subjects. And as I have written before, it is a lot easier to pick up most humanities subjects later than it is to pick up sciences (again, reference my high school years as an example of how that is true…)


*other likely options are Australia or Japan.

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