Buried in the mountains of applications that college admissions offices receive every year are a handful of envelopes from high school students who may never have endured a crowded lecture or sweated over their class rank: home-schoolers.
Their application forms may be unconventional and their educational experiences unusual, but students who have received their education outside a traditional school setting are routinely earning admission and scholarships to many of the nation's colleges and universities.
"We've found that these students are so strong that it's in the best interest of the institution to take them very seriously," said Karen Hornig, vice president for enrollment management at College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
Said Carlton "Corky" Surbeck, director of admissions at Goucher College in Towson: "Basically, they're pretty darn bright."
Keeli Precord, a 17-year-old home-schooler who entered Goucher as a freshman this fall, was home-schooled during her four years of high school. A student in the Anne Arundel County public school system through eighth grade, she is happy with the welcome she received from the eight colleges where she interviewed.
"My mom was a little worried that they wouldn't know what to do with me because I home-schooled, but the colleges were very accommodating," said Precord, an accomplished horseback rider who hopes to join Goucher's equestrian team. "Most of them said they had found home-schoolers to be more disciplined, more mature, more well-rounded and more aware of what they wanted."
And while she was required to take some SAT II subject-specific tests, in addition to the standard SAT, because she was a home-schooler, "applying for college wasn't very difficult at all," Precord said.
Nationwide, 1.7 million students of all ages were home-schooled during the 1999-2000 school year, according to William Lloyd, a researcher and Washington branch manager for the National Home Education Research Institute, a nonprofit organization. And while numbers are elusive, educators say the number of home-school college applicants is small but growing.
"We look at home-schooled students as a special group," said Tom Taylor, assistant provost for enrollment at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Their families are very committed to education. They're getting very intensive work and they're very engaged in what they're doing."
As home-schoolers are recognized as legitimate competitors in the college applicant pool, more admissions offices are developing policies to help them evaluate the nontraditional credentials of students who may not have grades, grade point averages or diplomas.
"Most colleges have a completely nondiscriminatory policy for home-schoolers," said Cafi Cohen, author of several books about home- schooling including, "And What About College?" Her two home-schooled children, now grown, had successful college careers.
Nonetheless, a home-schooler's path to college may not always be as smooth as the road for traditionally schooled students, whose applications give admissions directors what they expect to see.
Some colleges will accept work portfolios and transcripts of courses and grades given by parents, relying on required SAT I scores to "validate" the students' abilities. Others may take a tougher stance, requiring home-schoolers to take additional admissions tests and SAT II subject tests, take a GED exam or write essays about why they are home-schooling.
And many are concerned about an applicants' involvement in activities outside of the home.
"We want to be certain that they are pursuing a passion during their nonacademic hours, be it music or writing or another interest," said Paul White, the new assistant dean for admissions at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and former director of undergraduate admissions for the Johns Hopkins University.
Students applying to more selective colleges may want to take a few courses at a community college to demonstrate their academic initiative, says Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment and student life at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Also, he suggested that students take several SAT II subject tests -- even if they aren't required.
"It gives them a positive edge," Massa said. "They're going to want to distinguish themselves in the school."
Carrie Kelley, 17, of LaPlata, received a full scholarship to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, where she is a freshman. A home-schooler throughout her school career, she impressed admissions officials with her math skills and SAT I score.
Her mother, Rosie Kelley, has home-schooled eight children with her husband, Hagar. Five of their children are in college, and one has graduated.
"I contact the colleges and say, 'My child is home-schooled. Does that make a difference? What do you require?'" Mrs. Kelley said.
She also keeps portfolios with work samples and the results of standardized tests.
"Colleges are more accepting, now that home-schoolers can -- and do -- prove what they've done," she said. "They realize that most home-schoolers are very serious about what they're doing. This is the child's education."
Nonetheless, concerns about potential difficulties in the college admissions process may sometimes motivate home-schoolers to enter public or private school in the ninth or 10th grade. Of about 15,650 home-schoolers in Maryland last year, about 5 percent were of high school age, according to Richard Scott, a guidance specialist who coordinates home instruction for the Maryland State Department of Education.
But help is available for home-schoolers who want to continue with their alternative education through high school.
The Learning Community in Annapolis is a registered private school that oversees and advises students on their home-school education programs. It keeps records of their high school credits and sends transcripts and letters of recommendation to colleges. It also offers classes in a variety of subjects.
"It is easier to apply to college through The Learning Community because all the paperwork colleges want to see has been done," said Manfred Smith, executive director of the school and founder-president of the Maryland Home Education Association, an organization for home-schoolers.
Dvija "DiDi" Stempel, 18, of Boyds, received a full-tuition scholarship to Montgomery Community College after graduating as a home-school student in June. She had taken three community college courses during her junior and senior years.
"That showed them that I was able to do college-level courses," said Stempel, who had a transcript and diploma from The Learning Community. "I have yet to meet a home-schooler who doesn't feel ready for college."
Preparing for college after home-schooling
Tips for home-schoolers preparing for college:
Supplement your home study with outside learning, says Manfred Smith, founder-president of Maryland Home Education Association. Take courses at a local community college. View videotaped lectures, and study U.S. history, math or chemistry in small groups. Take an online course or a correspondence course. Join a tutorial group.
Carefully research course requirements for colleges you are interested in before ninth grade, and plan your four years of high school to meet those requirements, says Patrick Farenga, publisher of Growing Without Schooling, a home-schooling magazine. If your transcript isn't strong at the end of those four years, begin your college education at a community college to prove that you can do college-level work.
Don't neglect high-level math courses. Regardless of your area of interest, a good foundation in math is essential preparation for the SAT I. "The home-schooled applicants we have seen tend to be quite strong," says John Christensen, director of admissions for St. John's College in Annapolis. "But if I had to cite something that is an area of concern with greatest frequency, it would be preparation in math."
Don't be shy about your educational background. Karen Hornig, vice-president for enrollment management at College of Notre Dame of Maryland, advises: "Contact the institutions you're interested in to say, 'We're a home-schooling family. What do you need from us? What can we do to make it easier for you?' ... If an institution has a problem with the fact that you are home-schooled, it may not be the place for you."
Talk directly to the staff member in college admissions who handles nontraditional applicants, says Sean Callaway, a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Schedule an interview and get to know an admissions staff member.
Use the Web to get information on home-schooling and college. Among the useful addresses: compuhigh.com, which bills itself as the world's first online high school; homeschoolteenscollege.net, where author Cafi Cohen's "Homeschool Teens & College" site offers tips, articles and links to other sites; and collegeboard.org/features/home/html/intro.html, where the College Board offers detailed advice on the path from home-school to college.
Get in touch with home-school support groups that can offer advice on smoothing the way to college, including: Maryland Home Education Association, 410-730- 0073, contact Manfred Smith; Christian Home Educators Network, 410-329-8007, contact Bill Trautman; Maryland Association of Christian Home Educators, 301-607-4284.