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Homeschooling the Teen Years

An Interview with Cafi Cohen

October 5, 2000

The following discussion was conducted live on a chat program hosted by Mary Leggewie. Cafi Cohen began homeschooling in the 1980's and together with her husband Terrell educated both of her children at home through high school. Both her son and her daughter were admitted to their first choice colleges on substantial scholarships.

She frequently contributes to several national homeschool publications, including Home Education Magazine, Homeschooling Today, and The LINK, a Homeschool Newspaper. Her books include And What About College? How Homeschooling Leads To Admissions To The Best Colleges and Universities, Homeschooling The Teen Years, and The Homeschoolers' College Admissions Handbook.

She also presents workshops on a wide range of topics at home education conferences nationwide and teaches music in a homeschool co-op in Arroyo Grande, California.

I hear many parents who say, "How can I homeschool my teen when I don't understand algebra myself?" What do you tell these parents?

Cafi Cohen: Sooner or later, ALL homeschooling parents hit the wall, in other words, they come up against a subject they know nothing about. Fortunately, now - unlike 10 years ago - we have hundreds of self-instructional resources for any subject imaginable. If self-instruction and correspondence instruction do not work for your teenagers, they can take homeschool co-op and community college classes. One homeschool mom I know says she's glad when her children hit algebra because then they enroll in junior college algebra I, and math is off her plate, so to speak.

How hard it is for homeschooled teens to get accepted into colleges?

Cafi Cohen: A recent National Center for Home Education study found that homeschoolers are routinely accepted into more than 95% of the 500-plus colleges they surveyed. Even more impressive, some colleges are now offering scholarships specifically for homeschool graduates. At some colleges, homeschoolers are admitted at higher rates than regular applicants. An example? Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Thomas Aquinas College, a "great books" school in California, boasts that 29% of their student body have been homeschooled.

Is there anything that can help give homeschoolers an edge over any other student?

Cafi Cohen: Yes. Homeschoolers planning to apply to college should use their teen years to become very proficient at one to three activities. Parents should encourage their teens to explore their interests in depth. For example, my son participated in the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program. He eventually - at age 17 - earned a private pilot's license. This experience counted heavily towards his admission to the U. S. Air Force Academy, one of the most selective schools in the nation.

Is it necessary for homeschool teens to take the GED?

Cafi Cohen: Although most colleges no longer require the GED of homeschoolers, a few still request it. Sometimes taking the GED may be the easiest way to "complete the applicant's file." At the same time, readers should know that some homeschoolers are refusing on principle to take the GED. Either they avoid applying at colleges that request the GED, or they explain to admissions officers why taking it makes no sense. I know of several cases where they have won the argument by saying, "I have a 1350 SAT score and 16 college credits. Do you really think a GED score is necessary?"

What is an "official" diploma, and how important is it to have one?

Cafi Cohen: An "official" diploma is one issued directly to colleges from the credit-granting institution (usually a high school). Official diplomas often bear seals, stamps, and signatures to assure their authenticity. Most colleges now know not to expect an official diploma from homeschoolers. Nevertheless, there is no reason why homeschooling parents cannot include seals, stamps, and/or notarized signatures on their homebrew diplomas, thereby making them "official."

How can I prepare my teen for college entrance exams (SAT and ACT)? At what age should they begin taking these exams? And are they required for all colleges?

Cafi Cohen: Many four-year colleges and almost all two-year community colleges do NOT require an SAT or ACT score. In addition, an increasing number of four-year colleges have discontinued use of the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions. For a list, check out FairTest.

Check with colleges where you think your homeschoolers will apply to determine which test, if any, they will need to take. I recommend preparation, beginning at grade eight, using standard book and CD-ROM preparation materials you can find in the study guide section of any large bookstore.

Most homeschoolers do not take four years to do the four years of high school. Those taking college entrance tests may take the first exam, the PSAT as early as grade nine. The "standard" time to take the SAT and ACT is the end of grade eleven or the beginning of grade twelve.

At what age can homeschool teens begin taking college classes?

Cafi Cohen: How about age 12! Much depends on the how accepting different colleges are. In some parts of the country, all they need is a parent signature. In other areas, some colleges, unfortunately, build a wall of red tape. Regardless, ALL homeschooled teens can avail themselves of correspondence college classes.

Have you gotten much feedback from parents who start their kids very young in community colleges? I would be nervous about the age span between my young ones and those coming from government high schools.

Cafi Cohen: Community colleges seem to have an older, more serious clientele than the local state university, according to most homeschooling parents I have queried about this. Also, usually younger teens take a single class. I know one mom of a 14-year-old who accompanies her daughter to her college class.

How important are AP classes and how can a homeschooled teen take these classes?

Cafi Cohen: AP classes enhance the transcript of any applicant to a competitive college. I have a list of institutions offering AP classes to homeschoolers on the links page at my website. That said, you need not take an AP class to take the AP exams. You may use any course material you like.

How important is composition in preparing for college? How much writing should a homeschool teen be doing in high school?

Cafi Cohen: Writing skills are crucial to success at most colleges. All homeschoolers now in college that I have interviewed say they should have done more writing during their high school years. I am not a fan of traditional writing and grammar exercises, reports and term papers, and typical high school writing assignments. Teens would do far better to write for real world purposes - 4-H newsletter, creative short stories, correspondence, contest entries, journals, and so on.

How do you keep a teen involved outside the home and interacting with others when he is most interested in computers and would rather not deal with people?

Cafi Cohen: About all that parents can do is promote and create opportunities for group interactions. In our case, I made community service and church attendance mandatory. Everything else was optional.

What do you think of letting homeschool teens graduate from high school early?

Cafi Cohen: I have no problem with that, and in fact, it will happen to most families simply because home education is so efficient. The big question is: what do you do with a 15- or 16-year-old high school graduate? I agree with those who say that ages 15 and 16 are too early for exposure to campus living at the state university. And don't forget alternatives such as foreign exchange trips.

Can you teach biology and chemistry at home without a lab?

Cafi Cohen: Sure. We did it. You don't need something that looks like a laboratory to make observations, do experiments, and study natural phenomena.

What would you consider to be the most important books for a college-bound student to read?

Cafi Cohen: All college bound students should be well-grounded in the two pillars of western civilization: the Judeo-Christian tradition and the ideas first elucidated by the Greeks and Romans. The Bible and classics would be high on my list, with the side note that most students will only have a smattering of the thousands of classics before they reach the age of 18. Keep in mind that "reading" takes many forms - seeing a Shakespeare play and hearing an audiotape count just as much as poring over a text book.

Is a transcript a requirement, and are there any books or Web sites with information on how to design one? What are your thoughts on record keeping. How detailed? Report card or transcript only?

Cafi Cohen: Many colleges will want to see a transcript. I have information on designing one to fit YOUR teenager in my first book, And What About College? That title also discusses record-keeping, as does my second book, Homeschooling The Teen Years.

What do you think about college at home? Where can we go for more information on that?

Cafi Cohen: Want to save big bucks??? Consider college at home. The second edition of And What About College? released last May has a new chapter addressing college at home. Certainly opportunities for college at home are expanding, and many might want to explore this cost-saving option for part or all of college.

Can you name a few of the colleges/universities that you know of offering at-home studies?

Cafi Cohen: We see changes EVERY week. If you are interested in college at home, begin in your own backyard. Call local colleges. Most colleges now offer some distance learning opportunities.

Audience question: On a "homebrew" transcript: Is there a difference between labeling a course "Honors" vs. "AP"? Can we so designate any course we feel is above grade level?

Cafi Cohen: Prefer the "AP" designation to "honors". I think it has more impact in college admissions offices. Yes, you can so designate any course you feel is above grade level.

Audience question: How does one get a homeschooled scholar into a community college to take algebra?

Cafi Cohen: Ah, THAT depends on how cooperative your local JC is. In our case, we simply enrolled our son and paid the fee for the classes (in Colorado). He had to take reading and math placement tests, and that was it! Other places can make it much more difficult. Community colleges are not supposed to compete with public high schools.

How old was your son when be began to participate in the Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program? How young do they accept candidates?

Cafi Cohen: I think the CAP ages are 12-21. My son began to participate at 14. I wish we had known about it earlier. It's a FABULOUS program. Most moderate size communities should have a CAP squadron, say 100,000 people or more. Smaller communities might have a local squadron if there is an Air force base nearby.

Would you recommend any outside activities for homeschooled scholars who are college bound? Would it look bad, for instance, to have a teen who has done nothing but math, science and computers?

Cafi Cohen: Yes, yes, yes -- let's see, specifically. 4-H, CAP,Scouts, and as much community service (volunteering) as possible. Paying jobs also look very good to college admissions officers. Homeschooler's who restrict themselves to "covering all the bases" on a scope and sequence do not impress college admissions officers. Any applicant who simply does his four years of English, four years of Language Arts, three years of math, and so on -- without activities -- will NOT stand out in a crowd. You need to stand out in a crowd if you want to win admission to selective colleges -- or big scholarship money at any school.

What about scholarships for our kids? Do they have a chance?

Cafi Cohen: Homeschoolers win just as many scholarships as their traditionally school counterparts. I base that on research I have just completed for a third book, The Homeschoolers' College Admissions Handbook, to be released in December.

Audience question: Why have colleges discontinued using the SAT or ACT scores to make admission decisions?

Cafi Cohen: They don't think the SAT/ACT tells them anything about an applicant's potential for success at college. Read more about it at the FairTest site.

Audience question: What is your take on clepping college courses?

Cafi Cohen: CLEPPING is wonderful -- IF the college where your child will eventually receive his degree accepts the credit.

At what age should these young people be looking college choices?

Cafi Cohen: Believe it or not, selective colleges would like to begin talking to them at grade eight or nine. My husband is now a liaison officer for the Air Force Academy. As such, he helps people apply to the military academies and for ROTC scholarships. He would like to begin seeing interested students at age 14 -- when they can still do something about their preparation.

Audience question: What should be included in a high school portfolio?

Cafi Cohen: Work samples, letters of recommendation, awards, test scores, transcripts, photos, descriptions of in depth projects, documentation of running a business, and anything else that shows off your student's accomplishments.

Audience question: Wouldn't college at home serve as a detriment for some careers?

Cafi Cohen: Yes. I don't think you can get a teaching credential via college at home. And it's hard to imagine nursing or piano performance in a college at home format. I think that not enough people consider college at home. Certainly it can be a wonderful, money-saving alternative for the first year or two, especially if your homeschooler graduates at age 15.

Audience question: Is an accredited high school program beneficial (such as Clonlara) for a homeschool scholar wishing to attend college?

Cafi Cohen: At most private colleges, it probably won't make much difference. At state colleges and universities, you will often be better off with a transcript from a school like American School, Cambridge Academy, or Clonlara.

Audience question: How expensive are some of the accredited programs for high school accredidation?

Cafi Cohen: Accredited independent-study programs may run anywhere from $250 to $2500 per year -- quite a range!

Many thanks to Cafi Cohen for sharing her thoughts with us here at!

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