Course Descriptions Made Easy

I am a mama with full days, like many of you. I look for simple and manageable. 

Though I am about excellence, I also am about simplifying and streamlining. 

But let's face it, sometimes we have to tackle tough. Course descriptions (CDs), often intimidating, are not always necessary. So, breathe easy. On the other hand, when they are needed, they are usually essential to the admission process. In addition, of all the families I work with, the large majority who were required to submit CDs also received substantial scholarship monies.

That is good news, really! 

So, what if CDs are essential to your student's college admission packet?

Don't panic!

Parents often confuse transcripts with course descriptions. The transcript provides a one-page snapshot of a young adult's high school course, grade, and credit summary. Course descriptions, however, offer short synopses of the learning chapters in your student's story. Ideally, those course descriptions should complement--add value and give clarity--to the transcript document.

Why course descriptions? For students graduating from a public entity, course catalogs (also called course guides or curriculum guides) are available online (used to be paper and had to be requested from the guidance department) and follow the requirements (standards) of that state (or now in many cases, Common Core). Colleges know the set criteria and standards met in the classroom are standard for each course at every school in that state. So, there is no need for each high school to write individual course descriptions for every class for every student. They write one course description--usually posted on their website--for all students, as long as they offer the course.

Home education is different. A sculpture class in one home is likely to look entirely different than a sculpture class in another home. One student may enroll in a sculpture class at a local art studio. Another may have been invited to join an artist for weekly mentoring in a private studio. Yet another student may dual enroll a sculpture class at the local college. The same distinctiveness can be applied to a literature course--each home can choose their own literature selections--or a science course--where the student might be invited to take part in a research project at a local university. There is no standard way to meet course requirements (unless your state dictates differently--this post assumes parents have researched and know the home education statute for their state). Hence, some colleges use course descriptions to assess the depth and rigor of a home education course because they know courses vary for each home school.

Some colleges ask home education parents to write course descriptions.

It is part of their verification process. With the eclectic mix of methods and means home educators utilize, the CDs do bring out the extraordinary opportunities homeschoolers have experienced and embraced. 

I remember the day a college requested I write CDs.

I panicked! 

After a deep breath...

Thankfully, we were early in our high school journey! I could easily remember the exceptional experiences our young adult had benefited from in his courses, variations from more traditionally-taught classes: 10 dissections he completed in Honors Biology at a local co-op. We had also designed courses around independent study, research, and personal reading. 

Additionally, I had been keeping a reading list on the computer. I could cut and paste those titles into course descriptions as needed. 

I was relieved. Since that first request and a total of four high schoolers later, 

I have learned to:

  • Write course descriptions when the young adult begins the course (even if just the bare minimum is known: textbook, reading materials, anticipated experiential opportunities) and add significant educational highlights throughout the year. When I waited until the end of the year to write the whole description, I forgot some of the most beneficial learning blessings he experienced, no to mention getting my head above the project was monumental, or at least it seemed so when I felt I was drowning.
  • Remind myself course descriptions tell the stories of the courses detailed on the transcript. It is the document college admissions personnel will reference as they consider offering admission, need more information to differentiate one student from another and offer scholarship. A course description is not an outline of the course and will be less likely to read if lengthy. Course descriptions are chapter summaries, hitting the highlights, offering the concepts learned, the teaching methods and resources used, and exceptional experiences in which the student participated.

  • Take note of the unusual and unique. Course descriptions are especially important if the parent and young adult are designing unique courses, courses not typically offered on local school campuses or courses not generally taught in high schools, for example Introduction to Equine Science, Survey of the Building Construction Industry, or Care and Concerns of the Elderly.

  • Record regularly. When I don't,  I forget valuable additions. In our busy, full years of adding a Bastian or spending evenings at the ball field, I found it helpful to start a student's course description document and add bullet points to the course titles. Later, when I have time,  I can revisit later and edit into cohesive sentences. Tackling course descriptions in this manner helps me remember important details and keeps me excited about what my young adult is accomplishing. When it is not in front of me, I tend to forget.

Keeping records current saved me time and headache later.

  • Remind myself there are many ways to accomplish learning (this is true even of the state standards- the standard can be met with very different and unique methods). For example, American History. If two of the many learning goals for a high school level American History class are to understand the causes and consequences of the Civil War and the effects on the American people, and to understand the causes and consequences of World War II in the United States and abroad, the learning possibilities of how a student will understand those concepts are vast and plenty. Chapters in a text could be read and summary questions answered. On a family vacation up the East Coast of the United States, the family could visit and tour eight Civil War battlefields and National Parks and compare what actions were taken and who was involved at each location. The student could attend a local WWII veteran's meeting and listen to the stories shared by the members. Perhaps the local library hosts a presentation by surviving Tuskegee Airmen who share their wartime experiences from the perspective of African Americans serving during WWII (actual event we attended and it was AMAZING!). And then there are the plethora of primary source documents and biographical materials which could be read. Not only can the same learning goals be accomplished, but learning with this type of diversity allows young adults of different learning styles to retain information they might not otherwise remember. It is these exceptional and unique opportunities which can be highlighted in course descriptions, should a high schooling family choose to prepare this document or a college require it for admission.

Being intentional about writing course descriptions proved most valuable for courses we designed or courses developed from internships and shadowing experiences. When designing a course, I felt it was important to keep a running log of educational experiences, online resources, and learning resources, just as I would if I were compiling a course as a traditional classroom teacher.

There are blessings to writing course descriptions.

For us, the original course descriptions from my first high schooler could easily be cut, pasted, and edited to the unique experiences and opportunities of the high schoolers who followed. Second, though not all colleges asked for the description document, I sent them anyway. It was done and I wanted officials to have the document should they have questions. I know some parents feel this is a controversial and dangerous precedence for future home educated applicants, but in at least one situation those descriptions placed our young adult in a better position of acceptance in an honors college (because we couldn't document any of his courses as Honors or IB, which most of the applicants had earned). When the descriptions (which included reading materials) were read, the depth and expanse at which our young adult studied most of his courses could be realized. Our homeschool high school experience was just as rigorous as those students who had completed accredited IB programs. Note: Realizing that our student had the ability and desire to qualify for an IB or similar program, I researched the contents and reading materials utilized by these programs and then wove them into our studies. Again, this is our experience, not something I am advocating for every home schooled high schooler.

As we progressed through high school and began researching college admission requirements, I was thankful I had records of courses my student had completed.

Being intentional with writing course descriptions has served us well, in many cases. The work was done as we studied, and saved on the computer, should we need it. We did need it for our first applicant. With our second, because of dual enrollment and then an easy transition to the state college (and eventually a four-year university), the course descriptions were not necessary. On a side note, had our first and second grads followed their aspirations to play competitive collegiate sports (hence registering with the NCAA) having the course descriptions complete would have saved me a huge amount of time filling out their Core-Course Worksheets. Keep in mind as you consider NCAA and course titles, they prefer specific titles. Be aware.

This information (and more) is included in my book, Celebrate High School. which was heavily revised and updated summer 2015.  The revised edition contains every thing in the original publication as well as some new features including middle school sections.  

Join me at FPEA for my workshop, Happy (High School) Paper Trails to YOU!

This blog post is intended to offer an example of personal experience. It is in no way intended to be legal advice and should not be taken as such. Parents own the sole responsibility for the training and education of their children.