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How Non-Traditional Students Can Make the Most of Their Experience

non-traditional student does his homeschool work in the living room

By Kelly, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Are you a homeschooler? A distance learner? A non-traditional student? If so, you have some key elements to consider when applying to college to make the most of your experience beyond what traditional students can offer. For colleges, a non-traditional student is someone who does not attend an in-person school. Whether you’re home-schooled, studying with private tutors, participating in a gap year, or otherwise not attending a traditional school, you may be viewed as a non-traditional applicant.

Until recently, it was quite rare for top universities to receive homeschool student applications. But with many transitioning to remote learning or independent schooling online, this has become more common.

Overall, these students will need to provide compelling reasons why they took an unconventional route. You might have taken a gap year to start your own business or take care of a loved one. You may not live near any schools that provide the curriculum or activities you seek. Whatever the reason, a non-traditional education does not limit your options when it comes to building your candidacy or competitive edge.

Along with the new challenges that arose since the pandemic, some unique online opportunities also became available. No longer do students have to attend school or engage in extracurriculars and community endeavors on a traditional campus. And in some cases, a traditional campus setting/school may not be the right fit.

Non-Traditional Educational Options

The options to attend high school remotely at virtual accredited schools such as Global Fusion Academy have opened up a new way of imagining the high school experience. Accreditation for schools in the U.S. means that an outside party has reviewed the educational procedures and deemed them satisfactory. It’s a good idea to either get your homeschool curriculum accredited or find an accredited homeschool program to join.

Students can also enroll in self-paced online courses offered through top universities on MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platforms, such as Coursera, edX, Yale Open Courses, MIT OpenCourseWare, and many more, to explore their academic interests beyond the classroom. They can also enroll directly in community college courses.

Non-Traditional Activity Options

Volunteer, experiential learning, or in-person activities are no longer required to build up a student’s profile and passions. You can find countless online options, such as:


There is no excuse not to be involved in the world around us, even from our own homes.

How Colleges Review Non-Traditional Students

Every college has its own parameters on what’s required from non-traditional students. Some will require an additional essay or an explanation of the curriculum/transcript. Some may want to interview the student. In some cases, homeschool applications get flagged and undergo three reviews rather than the typical two. Since applications are reviewed in comparison with other students from the same school, district, and/or region, students need to be able to highlight their fit and how they stand out in a unique way compared to their peers. In fact, admissions officers evaluate students within the context of the opportunities available to them.

Non-traditional applicants need to create a very detailed transcript that highlights the specifics and context of each course, including credits given. More weight will typically be placed on SAT/ACT scores because they demonstrate the student’s academic preparation and ability to perform in college-level coursework. Colleges will usually expect a GPA of 3.95 and above. The main expectation for students to be competitive in top-tier institutions is to have a rigorous high school curriculum with a solid progress record in all the core areas: English, math, social science, science, and foreign language.

Homeschoolers should make a four-year plan — use the UC core curriculum requirements as a reference point. Colleges want to see that the student will thrive in their school’s environment, which is even more essential when evaluating a non-traditional student’s application. Students who thrive in an online or homeschool environment may exemplify many traits that college admissions officers seek, such as being organized, showing a strong work ethic, having self-discipline, and communicating well. Without the structure of a traditional high school setting, students need to adjust and keep themselves motivated, which requires the maturity and discipline that colleges want to see.

Beyond academics, leadership is a main component admissions officers look for. Non-traditional students need to be even more dynamic self-starters and community builders and show how they sought out opportunities beyond the “classroom,” both academically and non-academically. Overall, admissions officers are looking for a student who is establishing engagement outside of the classroom.

Most college applications require you to write a personal statement and perhaps some supplemental essays. This is where your experience as a non-traditional student can really shine because it can make for compelling essay content and give admissions officers a chance to know you beyond your academic and extracurricular records. Topics you might write about include:

  • Why you chose distance learning
  • What important life lessons you learned by not going to a traditional school
  • Where you have traveled
  • What opportunities you have had for employment
  • What unique community-building causes inspire you


If you include as many details as possible about how the non-traditional path has benefited you, the admissions committee can feel confident that you will thrive and contribute something distinctive to the campus. It can also be helpful to work with a college admissions expert who can help you put together a cohesive and compelling application. IvyWise offers college admissions counseling that guides you through every step of the college admissions process, ensuring you have the best chance of admission into your top-choice programs.

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