Big, Small, or Homeschool: How High School Size Impacts College Prep

A great College Prep Parent can encourage their kids to appreciate the benefits of their school’s size – and to work through the challenges for college prep.

The kind of high school your college prep kid goes to makes a difference in their college prep. It is important for them to make the most of their own high school situation, and to realize what they may be missing. A great College Prep Parent can encourage high school kids to appreciate the benefits and take advantage of the opportunities they have – and to understand a few things that may be lacking in their experience. These challenges and benefits apply whether your child is homeschooled, attends the largest high school in the state, or anywhere in between.

Of course, high school contexts can differ in ways other than size. I hope to shine a light on these differences – and why they matter to college prep – in the future. But for today, let’s look at the practical impacts a small school or a big school should have on college prep.

Taking Advantage of College Prep at a Small School or Homeschool

Believe it or not, your student’s college prep will benefit in important ways from a small high school, homeschool, or “hybrid” setting. Of course, all good college prep requires students with motivation to succeed. A motivated student can benefit from a smaller context by taking the following steps:

For both small high schools and homeschool:

  • Take an active part in discussions about the material – both speaking and listening.
  • Learn to focus on personal grades, instead of comparisons to other students.
  • Take the opportunity to build relationships with teachers or administrators (including in co-op homeschool programs).
  • Appreciate the attention their hard work receives.
  • Provide leadership – inside and outside the classroom – that serves others.
  • Try out different academic or extracurricular activities to find great “fits.”
  • Learn to avoid overcommitment, even if your kid’s setting means any student can try anything.
  • Seek areas of intellectual challenge, both in school and outside of school.
  • Learn to make the most of the resources available to them…
  • …and seek necessary resources elsewhere (like a useful College Prep blog for parents, for instance!).

Additional college prep steps homeschoolers should take:

  • Become very competent at working independently.
  • Understand the interconnectedness of subjects.
  • Grow adept at pushing the extent of their own capabilities before seeking outside help.

If you consider each item in these lists, you can probably see how college will call for each skill. When it does, will your student have gained the skill they need for that moment?

Taking Advantage of College Prep at a Big School

Students in large high schools must also strive for good college prep. It doesn’t come naturally. But a large high school offers its own advantages for the motivated student. Your kid should take these steps to maximize those benefits:

  • Learn to be their own advocate in getting questions answered and finding out important information.
  • Get skilled in “tuning out” the distractions around them to focus on instruction.
  • Seek out the appropriate resources to accomplish academic tasks – they’re somewhere, but your student may have to find them.
  • Maintain consistent habits of personal organization and goal-setting.
  • Try out different academic or extracurricular activities to find great “fits” for the future.
  • Learn to avoid overcommitment, even in a setting that offers numerous “good options.”
  • Practice filtering through a variety of options to reach the best choice.
  • Take the opportunity for at-school ACT/SAT test prep workshops (like this test prep).
  • Schedule several challenging classes each year.

Take a look at each of these steps, imagining how they will make a difference on the college campus. How many has your child mastered so far?

College Prep Challenges for Your Kid’s School Size

Talking to many college students – from large high schools, from small ones, and coming out of homeschool – has alerted me to common challenges that each situation can pose to the college prep kid.

Three college prep barriers at smaller high schools or in homeschool:

  1. Getting used to being personally nurtured. Having fewer people in a class (or just one!) may thrill a serious college prep student. But having the close attention of an educator in most classes can encourage very bad habits. For instance, your child might come to rely on personal reminders and urgings from their ever-present teacher. Consistent awareness of deadlines and other important news, plus an easy-to-focus atmosphere, are luxuries that do not usually resemble academics at the “next level” (even as colleges become more Gen Z-friendly).
  2. Using lack of resources as an excuse. I once heard a college chemistry student, who hailed from a small high school, complain that they had never seen some of the equipment they discovered in the college lab. They didn’t know its use and began to think they had chosen the wrong major. But the truth is, the internet makes discovering college facilities and opportunities simple, well before a student arrives. The same is true for all sorts of college prep information, resources, and opportunities. The curious and industrious college prep kid from a small high school has the ability to access resources that level the playing field.
  3. Thinking a large college will be “the answer.” Students at small high schools sometimes grow tired of predictability and familiarity. They may yearn for an environment where “everyone doesn’t know my business,” as well. The tendency is to think, “anything is better than this” and then only consider large schools (perhaps far away from home). But they (and you) should beware of overcorrecting. The reality is that students usually find that they have just about the same number of close friends at a large college as they did at their small high school. The pleasure of being “anonymous” at a new school gets old, and most seek out the kind of community that they had (and took for granted) in high school. So a student shouldn’t limit their own college choices simply as a reaction to their current environment.

Three college prep dangers a larger high school may pose:

  1. Getting lost in the crowd. Large classes and a large student body require a student to be more assertive to get the attention needed to learn. Always struggling against a crowd when moving around campus, accessing group resources, or focusing on class content can prove exhausting. Learning ways to cope and overcome is the challenge for the college prep kid.
  2. Larger classes = less accountability. When classes are large, teachers may find it hard to use some of the methods that ensure academic accountability. Multiple choice, “bubble-in” tests or other easily-graded formats may become the default style of testing. However, tests that include essays and longer answers, though harder to grade, provide a level of academic accountability and preparation for college. Large class size (and school size) present another, related danger: A wise student must resist the temptation to laziness in their so-called “anonymity.”
  3. Assuming grades show subject mastery. In some large high schools with large classes, grades may not provide a true indication of the amount of mastery of a subject. The less personal interaction with the grade-giver – through verbal discussions and written responses to questions – the less a grade may offer an actual indication of understanding.

The advantages and disadvantages of school size ultimately depend on the student. Making use of the benefits of one’s setting gives a student a head start. What’s more, overcoming a possible disadvantage in a high school just might be one of the best college preparations of all.

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