Course Descriptions and Reference Letters for Homeschooling to College

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 Summary:  Homeschooling high school to college is not that hard, especially when course descriptions and homeschool reference letters come along for  the ride.  Homeschooling high school record keeping is key to writing good course descriptions.  Reference letters show the colleges what your student is about, and that is important to college admissions.

Homeschool transcripts are being well accepted by colleges, especially when two important things come along for the ride - course descriptions and reference letters. 

Course descriptions and reference letters help to showcase your child's accomplishments to the colleges. 


The good news is that not all colleges ask for course descriptions. But if your college does, I found that they weren’t really hard to do.  Let’s start with a definition.

1.  What is a course description?

"Course descriptions provide the details of the course and usually include a list of the materials used... grading method, and evaluation of credit.  You are the one to decide how detailed your course descriptions will be." - HSLDA

2. What should I include in them?
The purpose of course descriptions is to let the colleges know what was done in your teen's courses, and to what extent or depth.

Here's 4 things to include in your course descriptions:

- What were the expectations for the course, i.e., what did you expect your student to learn?
- What materials did you be use?
- How was the grade determined?
- How much credit was given?

Here are a few samples of course descriptions:

n  U.S. History

This 1 credit course covered U.S. History, from 1659 - present. The student learned key U.S. History facts and will read _________ books, wrote ________ research papers, participate in an historical reenactment, and completed ____ essays on chosen U.S. history topics.  The grade was based on written reports, essay tests, and daily assignments, each of which counted as 1/3rd of the grade. Below are the books and resources used: Short Lessons in U.S. History, publisher__________, websites used_________, Historical Maps, Against the Grain – Six Men Who Shaped America, IEW Research Report Writing


n  American Literature 1 Credit

The student studied 6 American Literature novels, learned the principles of literary analysis, wrote an essay a week on various literary topics. A final essay for each of the novels was also completed, using the steps of writing, from outlining through final draft.

Resources used:

American History - 7 Sisters Homeschool publisher
Novels read:

A Separate Peace
A Raisin in the Sun
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Scarlet Letter
Little Women
The Right Stuff
To Kill a Mockingbird

Grading was based on a combination of weekly work, with 1 final draft completed each week, and the final project and 1 credit was earned.

3.  Should I list all the materials that were used?

Your list of materials can be a summary of what you used and does not need to include every detail. The course description summarizes what you did, so it does not need to be a whole course syllabus. In fact, longer descriptions are less likely to be read. Therefore, I suggest aiming for a paragraph in length.  

But as the parent you decide how you want to do it.

The materials that you use can include a wide variety of learning resources, such as texts, DVD's, websites, unit studies, field trips, related community activities, living literature, free reading books, projects completed, internet research, etc.

4.  Can I use the course summary that comes along with the textbook?

If you are using textbooks, feel free to use the summary or description of the course from the homeschool catalog or website. When using a textbook, HSLDA recommends including the authors, publishers, and date of publication for each text.

5.  Don't confuse the transcript with the course descriptions.

As you know, the transcript is a one-page document that lists all of your teen's high school courses, with the grades, and credits earned. Course descriptions, on the other hand, describe what has been done during each course in detail. 

They are written in a separate document and sent to the colleges along with the transcript and the college application.

6.  What about record keeping?

Keeping records of textbooks, living literature, etc., early on, can be such a help in making your descriptions.  I just jotted down what I thought we would be doing and working on, and then revised it at the end of the year.  With these notes, it was so much easier for me to do our course descriptions.

Please see "Forms" at the end of this chapter, for a record keeping form, if you would like a form for your record keeping.

Along with course descriptions, reference letters can also be key to your teen getting into college.


Reference letters are an important part of the college application process.  They help admissions get to know your student from the perspective of other adults in their life.
If your student is taking an online course, or at a college or community college, then your teen already has a teacher to ask for a reference.  

But many homeschoolers don't have one available, nor do they have a school counselor to ask. Therefore, letters from your student's activities can be just the ticket.

College reference letters can come from any adult who knows your student well.  It can be from a teacher, a coach, a mentor, a dance instructor, a minister, etc… Really from any adult who can speak to your teen’s character and abilities.

Reference Letters can be fun to do, as it gives your teen a chance to reconnect with coaches, group leaders, etc.

Other reference letters besides from teachers, can come from leaders of your student's activities, such as 4H, volunteering, a supervisor from your teen's part time job, a pastor, a church youth leader.... anyone who knows your student well.

When my teen applied to college, we used letters from my teen's leaders in Youth and Government, Irish dance, and in her volunteer activities.  These references were accepted by the colleges that my teen applied to, and they helped her get accepted.  

The colleges are getting used to seeing a variety of sources for the reference letters.
Look around for the most important adults in your teen’s life, and help your teen ask them for a college reference letter.

When my teen requested letters of reference, the activity leaders were happy to help.  But sometimes it's nice to request these references in writing.  I made a form that your teen could use, which is available in the appendix.  It also gives the activity leader suggestions as to what to write in their reference letter.

The email group called is a place where family’s share their experiences with going from high school @ home to college.  They have discussed using multiple recommendation letters for their college applications, along with other tips for aiming towards college.  

This group is especially helpful if you are aiming towards Ivy’s.

Will you be using the Common College Application for your teen?

Common Application

The reference letters discussed above are important no matter what type of college application form that you will use.  But for those who use the Common Application, there are a few more specific things that need to be done.

The Common Application itself asks for only two reference letters, but that is for public school applicants.

The form will call for these two reference letters:

-one from a teacher
-and another from their school counselor.

BUT those are what are required for public school students.  

Instead, as homeschoolers, the requirement is to have these 2 documents:

As homeschoolers, we are to do two special documents for our teen's Common Application:

1.  the Counselor Recommendation Letter
2.  the School Profile.

The folks at the Common Application ask us to be the counselor for our homeschooled teen, and write their counselor recommendation letter.

As their homeschool parent.  

But they are not difficult to do and we of course, know our student best.  More information on how to write both of these documents is in the next chapter.

NOTE – When doing the Common Application, it is helpful to also include other college references letters from  their coaches, co-op teachers, youth ministers, etc. know them best and their letters are a real asset to your teen’s college application.

If you have a teacher, tutor, or online counselor, by all means, ask for a reference from them.

These extra reference letters are key to getting your teen into college and will allow admissions to get to know your teen well.

And that is what the college counselors in admissions want to do.

For more info on college....My ebook is currently on sale @ $3.49 and it includes the following forms that relate to this post, plus 10 more:

Course Descriptions Record Keeping Form - This is a place for recording keep track of what you did for each course, making your course descriptions easier, at the end of the year.

Reference Letter Request Form - Just print these off and fill in the blanks! Your teen can use this form to send to their activity leaders or instructors, as a way to request their references.

My best to you and your high schooler, where ever their path will lead!  I invite any of you to join us my facebook group for support...It is called:

I help moderate this encouraging group.  This group is a great place to meet other moms who are homeschooling high school with college in mind.

Thanks for stopping by BJ's Homeschool,


Betsy is mom to her now college senior, whom she homeschooled through high school.  She blogs at BJ's Homeschool, about the early yearshigh schoolcollegegifted/2e and wrote - Homeschooling High School with College in Mind.   She offers free homeschool help through messages at BJ's Consulting and has had her articles picked up by the Huffington Post.

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