From Homeschool to Harvard

Harvard’s homeschooled students say growing up outside of a traditional school system was an opportunity for them to be flexible and self-driven.
By Sofia W. Tong and Idil Tuysuzoglu

Members of the Class of 2021 gather for their class photo following Freshman Convocation. The class photo is taken annually on Widener steps.
Members of the Class of 2021 gather for their class photo following Freshman Convocation. The class photo is taken annually on Widener steps. By Megan M. Ross

As soon as Olivia S. Farrar ’21 got her driver’s license, the world was her classroom.

The freshman, who was homeschooled throughout high school, said she would hop from one cafe to the next, finding new places to complete her online assignments and self-defined projects.

Unlike the experience of the vast majority of Harvard students—who come from traditional brick-and-mortar high schools—a small group of undergraduates were homeschooled by their parents or through online courses before coming to college.

Like many peer institutions, Harvard says it does not evaluate homeschooled applicants differently than others in the admissions process. The University also does not publicize any statistics on homeschooled applicants or accepted students.

While an admissions officer declined to comment, according to the Admissions Office website, “each applicant to Harvard College is considered with great care and homeschooled applicants are treated the same as all other applicants.” The website adds that “there is no special process, but all relevant information about your educational and personal background is welcome.”

Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said that homeschoolers integrate well into the student population, while also adding that the definition of ‘homeschool’ has certainly changed, now encapsulating students who take online courses or community college classes.

“We’ve had lots of success with students who identify as homeschooled,” Dingman said. “It’s changed over time, so I don’t know that you can say these are people who’ve only gotten their education within the four walls of their home,” he added.

Harvard’s homeschooled students say growing up outside of a school system was an opportunity for them to be organic and self-driven in pursuing their interests and education, and has made coming to Harvard an occasionally overwhelming experience but one they felt well-equipped to tackle.

'How Do You Make Friends?'

Upon coming to Harvard, homeschooled students say they are often asked how they are able to socialize in college after the perceived narrowness of their homeschool social environment.

Claire L. Sukumar ’20, who was homeschooled until the ninth grade, said being homeschooled was helpful in shaping her attitude towards schooling going forward.

Sukumar said that starting college, she felt less tired of school than some of her new classmates.

“Generally, I feel less burnt-out than other people do. I never felt the need to get time off or to adapt here; I was really excited to go to school and then college,” she said.

Farrar, a student who was homeschooled all the way until college, agreed that the transition was also not as difficult as people often think, particularly due to Harvard’s encouragement of its students’ unique qualities and backgrounds.

Students enjoy an evening of nice weather by the Charles River
Students enjoy an evening of nice weather by the Charles River By Sidni M. Frederick

“I think Harvard—probably more so than a lot of other schools—does give you flexibility to have that goofy background, so the transition has probably been easier here than at other schools,” she said.

Farrar added that the common misconception that homeschoolers are socially inept is far from the truth.

“I get ‘How do you make friends?’ all the time,” Farrar said. “I’m having a conversation with you right now. Socialization is an innate thing.”

However, Farrar said she has sometimes felt overwhelmed by having her classes, teachers, activities, and social life all in the same place. Coming from an online education and few interactions with classmates, she said Harvard’s campus felt “surreal.”

“I’ve never been inundated with so many people at all times,” Farrar said. “At times I’m not a fan of it, but the Harvard community, not to throw out all the cliches, but it’s so diverse and talented it is exciting to be part of it.”

Kemen Linsuain ’18 said his homeschool experience means he sometimes has trouble relating to the shared experiences of people who grew up in public or private school systems. Linsuain was homeschooled after his Kindergarten-eighth grade Montessori school in Pittsburgh closed due to dropping enrollment.

“I’ve been here and never met another homeschooled person, or at least no one who’s told me they were homeschooled. It’s kind of an unusual thing,” Linsuain said. “I would say maybe the major difference is in general attitudes toward education. I think many people here have grown up in this standard school system and have the culture and the experiences that come with that.”

A Self-Driven Education

For some students who were homeschooled, one downside was not experiencing the breadth of education that is often mandated by public and private schools. On the flipside, homeschooled students say their extracurricular options were more diverse.

“I probably had a little bit less of the backbone of STEM that some people come here with just because there wasn’t quite the same resources for that when you’re alone as opposed to in a classroom or in a lab,” Farrar said.

Multiple students said that homeschooling allowed them ample amounts of free time to pursue various interests.

Farrar said that homeschooling in her experience was far from the common conception of a parent sitting a child down at a desk with a blackboard. Rather, her parents helped facilitate wherever her interests led her—ranging from nature walks to museum visits.

“When I was small I would just spend days at the library and I would just get lost in the stacks and just read everything that I touched,” she said. “There would be days where that was all I would do, and then there were days where I would just explore.”

Widener Library, a fixture of Harvard Yard.
Widener Library, a fixture of Harvard Yard. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

For Sukumar, she realized how much she appreciated that flexibility when she began attending a traditional high school, where she found she had less time to pursue the activities that had characterized her homeschooling experience.

“I’m not sure if it was because I was homeschooled, but when I got to [high] school, I dropped a lot of my extracurricular activities, gymnastics being the biggest one, because I was like so exhausted after school everyday,” she said.

Sukumar added that her transition to high school came with other challenges.

“School kids would be used to that, but I was just so tired and felt the need to spend a lot of time on my homework,” she said. “I was still kind of unsure in the beginning years about how much time I should be spending on all that.”

Linsuain said that the relative narrowness of his pre-college education made the transition to college at times tricky, but also rewarding.

“When I was in Pittsburgh, I had a limited opportunity in what classes I could take,” Linsuain said. “Here they make you really explore fields outside of your immediate area of interest. That was something that took some getting used to, but I think it was unquestionably a good thing. I used to be a terrible writer, for example, before coming here, and now that’s thankfully gotten a lot better.”

Thinking Outside the Box

Without any formal, mandated curriculum, some students who were homeschooled said they valued their training in creative ways of thinking and following their interests and intuitions, rather than being held to formulaic requirements.

Linsuain said that the homeschooled experience created a less rigid thinking style, which he said was both good and bad.

“I feel like I have less structure in the way I think about things and I’m just a little bit more ad hoc because I really figured out how to do things on the fly,” he said. “In some cases I feel like it’s more efficient; in some cases I feel like it’s less efficient.”

Farrar said that while her peers often struggle to manage their free time in college, her experience has been just the opposite.

“I’m not used to having these chunks of the day where somebody else has decided for me what I should be doing with my time,” Farrar said. “I think time management has always been one of my assets just because it was organic. I had to tell myself to sit down and do my homework. Nobody told me to do it.”

Linsuain said his less traditional education means that he often thinks and structures his ideas differently from his peers in situations like essays, cover letters, and job interviews.

“I often would not write an essay in the same way that other people would because I feel like many people here were taught to write it in a certain way and I wasn’t,” Linsuain said. “I feel like many people have a certain conception of how it should be done and I kind of have my own.”

Farrar agreed that her self-led approach to schooling felt more natural to her, allowing her to truly enjoy learning in college.

“Homeschooling prepared me for Harvard really well because it fostered such a strong love for the act of learning,” Farrar said. “Not learning for a grade, not learning for an exam, but learning for the sheer love of knowledge itself.”

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