by Bob Wiesner
Seton High School Guidance Counselor
Parents with homeschooled students are often daunted by the whole college entrance experience. The process can be rather complicated, but if it is taken step by step, families can survive and ensure that the students attend a good college without breaking the bank.
The first step in the process is usually taking the PSAT, also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or NMSQT. This test is sometimes taken as early as 9th grade, more often in 10th grade, but the time it actually counts for scholarship purposes is the 11th grade. This test is given only in October each year, so parents need to be aware of the deadlines and arrange with a nearby school to take the test. It is best to contact a school as soon as the guidance office opens in the Fall, since they need to know early in the academic year just how many tests to order.
The National Merit Scholarships are awarded from funds donated mostly by foundations and corporations. The amounts range from a few hundred dollars up to and including a full tuition, full room and board award. Some of the awards are based solely on the scholastic background and performance of the student. Others might be conditional awards; for instance, a chemical company might fund the education of a student who would major in chemistry and then work a few years for that company after graduation.
These scholarships are awarded on a state-by-state basis. Generally speaking, the top two percent of the students in any given state become semi-finalists in the competition, with half of those becoming the finalists and receiving awards. Students in the top ten percent are considered commended students; they often receive scholarship offers as well.
Since the competition is by state, students should NOT use the Seton school code on this test. Each state has a homeschool code and that is the number homeschooled students should use on this test only. The state codes are available on the Seton web site. Using the Seton code on this test would place the student in the Virginia pool of students.
The SAT and ACT tests are the two primary college entrance exams. These should be taken no later than the second semester of 11th grade, although they too may be taken as early as 9th grade for practice purposes. You should contact colleges to find out which they would prefer to see; most colleges these days will accept either, but generally have a preference for one or the other.
The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, is just as its name implies, an aptitude test. This test is designed to make some prediction of how well a student will perform academically in college. The score is (loosely) meant to have 500 as the average baseline. This will vary a bit from year to year, but the benchmark will always be in that neighborhood. The higher a score goes above 500, the better off a student will fare in college entrance and scholarship possibilities. There are three sections to the SAT, Verbal, Math and Writing; the top score on the SAT is 2400.
ACT stands for American College Testing. The ACT is designed as an achievement test, measuring how well a student has performed thus far in the academic arena. Thus, the test looks backward at a student’s career rather than forward, like the SAT. The ACT has four sections, English, Math, Reading and Science, with an optional section in Writing. The top score possible in each section is 36; the test is scored overall as a composite average, so the top score is 36. The national average is usually 20 or 21.
The scholarship search is the most complex part of college admissions and the part that will be the most work for the family. Setting up a systematic, stepby- step program is the best policy.
The Internet is by far your best resource for finding scholarships. There are too many available opportunities for any one person to dig through it all in search of qualifying programs. A website such as www.fastweb.com can help you winnow out programs which would not apply to your situation. Once you enter your specific information, this program will eliminate a lot of work for you by giving you a selection of possible choices to pursue.
Other than the Internet, families should investigate a few other avenues. First, family employers often have programs designed to help dependents with their education. If a student has a job, especially at a large business, the employer might have a scholarship program available.
The family circumstances might qualify for some financial aid. Farming families, for instance, have some funds available. The Internet again is your resource here. If you put in search terms such as “Farming family scholarship aid” you may very well come up with a program that fits your profile.
Professional organizations often have programs to aid dependents of members. The American Medical Association, nursing organizations, unions, and legal associations are all worth checking. Military families should check into anything that might be available to them.
Fraternal organizations sometimes have programs. The Knights of Columbus, for instance, has a program for members which will provide funds for students attending Catholic colleges. Elks, Moose, and veteran’s organizations are all worth checking. Sometimes dioceses and even parishes have funds available to help students from their localities attend Catholic colleges.
Another great resource is the financial aid offices of colleges. Every college has a certain amount of financial aid available for attracting good students to their institution. This might take the form of outright scholarships and grants, or a program of loans, work-study or other forms of service to the school. If a college sees an excellent prospective student, it is often willing to put forth quite an effort to help that student attend their school.
The general rule is to be creative in your thinking. Whatever your family circumstances might be, the chances are very good indeed that there is a program that would fit you and fill some of your financial aid needs.