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Homeschooling Science: Three Advanced High School Options

My homeschool science co-op students are constantly looking to me for advice on advanced high school courses and college admissions.  Although I’ve insisted that these decisions are best made within their family, over time I’ve realized that homeschooling parents often don’t understand the nuances of advanced coursework.  In fact, the advanced courses you choose for your child can either save your family money and stress or set up your child for frustration down the road.  

Advanced courses are not all the same- in cost and in the eyes of college admissions offices.  I hope the following list helps to demystify some differences in Honors, Dual Enrollment, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

Homeschool Science Options: AP Honors and Dual Enrollment

The advanced courses you choose for your child can either save your family money and stress or set up your child for frustration down the road.


  • Not equivalent to college-level work
  • Good option for highly motivated or independent students
  • No required standards to meet

This is the advanced course designation that is most often referenced by homeschooling parents.  Unfortunately, it’s also the most subjective.  Traditionally, honors courses show that not only did your child complete more work than another student, but it was more advanced work with in-depth thinking.

Rachel Kiehl is a good friend of mine and has been a guidance counselor in public and private schools for several years.  She has also helped homeschooled students successfully navigate the college admissions process.  Kiehl says, “when evaluating students who attend a large brick and mortar school, the ‘honors’ designation is important because in most cases, it differentiates a more challenging, college-bound curriculum.” In public schools, students taking honors courses have a weighted GPA, meaning that a B in Honors Algebra may correlate to an A in regular Algebra.  This standardization is used to provide a more accurate class rank for that student.  Homeschooling students, however, aren’t actually differentiating themselves from any other students and obviously don’t need a class rank.  

You may still be tempted to use the ‘honors’ designation to demonstrate that your child has completed more work or harder courses than other homeschooling students.  If so, Kiehl suggests that “taking SAT subject tests and submitting scores is probably one of the best ways a homeschooling student can defend their transcript and grades.”  In fact, many colleges may require some type of legitimization to verify the level of rigor of the course.  For example, when looking at a transcript that says ‘Honors Chemistry’, a college admissions office may also require the title of the textbook used or a standardized test such as the SAT Subject Test to demonstrate content knowledge in that area.  Most likely, though, the ‘honors’ designation will be completely overlooked by colleges due to the subjective nature of the title.  This is why you won’t find the ‘honors’ designation on my Biology course.  I do, however, provide some ideas for independent coursework if your child is highly motivated.

Homeschool Science Advanced Course Options: AP, Honors, and Dual Enrollment

Dual Enrollment:

  • College-level work completed during high school
  • Required standards vary
  • May or may not transfer to the college of your choice

Dual enrollment gets its name because students are technically enrolled in two schools (high school and college) simultaneously.  Courses can be completed at a local university or online.  Either option provides college credits while fulfilling a high school course requirement.  Some public schools also provide dual enrollment courses within their building.  Dual enrollment is a popular option among homeschooling parents because students can often earn credits at local colleges for a fraction of the traditional college cost. 

Although dual enrollment can offer many benefits, you need to carefully consider your child’s future plans before choosing this option.  Dual enrollment courses are usually sponsored by a local university.  Students can either take courses at that university or in a public school classroom in which both the course materials and the instructor have been vetted by the university to ensure the appropriate level of course rigor.  Because the standards for these courses vary based on the requirements of the sponsoring university, the credits earned may not necessarily transfer to another college.  If your child is planning to attend a different college after high school than the sponsoring university, please be sure to check with that specific school prior to choosing dual enrollment.  

Advanced Placement (AP):

  • College-level work completed during high school
  • Very specific standards created by The College Board (TM)
  • Requires a specific grade on AP test to earn college credit

AP (TM) courses are the most closely regulated of the three advanced course options.  Because of this high level of regulation, they provide less flexibility for homeschooling parents but are more widely accepted by colleges and universities.  

The College Board (TM) is the institution that writes and grades SAT tests.  In addition, it designs and regulates 38 AP courses.  These courses are created to be comparable in rigor to college courses and The College Board ensures this standard by strict oversight of the schools, organizations, and instructors that teach these AP courses.  If your child is planning to take an AP course as a homeschooler, your chosen materials and syllabus must be submitted to The College Board several months in advance of your teaching and must be approved in order to use the ‘AP’ designation on your child’s transcript. Keep in mind that taking an AP course does not mean your child will get college credit. That comes from the AP exam.

AP courses culminate in a standardized AP exam in May of each year.  These tests are provided to demonstrate content knowledge from each of the AP courses and are graded on a scale from 1-5, with 5 being the highest possible score.  Many colleges require a 4 or 5 in order for a student to receive college credit.  For example, a student taking an AP Biology course may not receive credit from their chosen college unless the AP Biology test has been passed with a score of 4 or higher.  Even if your child does not complete a verified AP course, they can register for and take an AP test.  If you choose this option, I’d highly recommend purchasing an AP test prep book for your student to prepare or using an online prep course through Kahn Academy, K12, or The Virtual High School

Disclaimer: Please remember that if your child is taking advanced courses in preparation for college or to earn college credit, it is always best to contact the schools in which your child is interested for the best advice on admission requirements.

For a quick comparison of Honors, Dual Enrollment, and AP courses, please see the chart below.

*Rachel Kiehl lives in Lancaster, PA and offers college counseling sessions with students via Skype. She can be reached at [email protected].

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