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Showing Off a Waldorf High School Curriculum for College

This is part 2 of a 2-part series on how college admissions view Waldorf students, what highly selective colleges are looking for, and how private high schools can highlight their attributes to prospective families. To read the first article of the series, click here. What I have shared with the students and families of the Waldorf School of Orange County is that, in terms of opportunities to show academic rigor, they already have everything they need in-house. Our high school curriculum includes four years of language arts, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, global studies, aesthetics, Spanish, and visual/performing arts, as well as three years of history and earth sciences. These courses are challenging and academically enriching across the board, as well as providing a host of advantages that are unique to Waldorf education, such as increased opportunities for creative expression and collaborative work. Although these students might lack the extensive experience with multiple-choice tests of their non-Waldorf peers, and “class rank” is probably understood as a warning to avoid an especially pungent classroom, they are just as well prepared for the rigorous academic environment of college.

Communicating the Value of a Waldorf High School Curriculum

So when students are in their senior year and in the process of filling out college applications (or during the lead-up to application season), it’s an ideal time to let them know that they can proactively address the rigor and value of their Waldorf education in their own words. They are always welcome to touch on these factors in their Common App or Coalition personal statement essay or UC Personal Insight Questions, but it’s not necessary, and they might want to reserve the very limited word counts of those essays for other topics. They might not be aware, however, that there are “Additional Information” or “Additional Comments” sections of the Common App, Coalition App, UC Application, and others (notably not the Cal State application, unfortunately) that allow them to share any details they feel would be helpful in understanding their academic record or any other personal context that is important to include.

Highlighting Specific Courses

I typically encourage students to write about courses they have taken at the Waldorf School that were particularly challenging and rewarding, courses in unique subjects that most high school students probably don’t have access to (i.e. World History through Architecture, Astronomy, etc.), learning experiences like their botany and transcendentalists field trips, and qualities of their learning environment that have shaped them as learners and young adults: a focus on the whole person, emphasis on the intrinsic love of learning rather than the “bottom line” of getting an A, frequent opportunities for creativity and collaboration, discussion-style classrooms, hands-on/experiential activities, and more.

Showcasing Waldorfian Traditions and Milestone Projects

There are some specific milestones/projects that Waldorf School of Orange County students take part in that I think should be especially intriguing to college admissions counselors, and which I encourage students to describe on their applications. During their junior year, students each write and perform their own monologue in front of a captive audience of fellow students, families, and teachers; many students have shared with me how challenging and ultimately rewarding the experience has been for them, often showing them a new side of themselves they weren’t aware of. The next year, they complete an independent senior research project that involves planning, researching, writing, constructing a practical component, and presenting their project at the end of the year; by completing a process-based project of this nature, these students develop a range of skills that will be very useful in college. When Waldorf students share how experiences like these have shaped them in specific, personal ways, they are bringing the concept of “rigor” to life in a way that will help admissions counselors to understand why those students are well-equipped to transition to a rigorous college environment.

Demonstrating Rigour Outside of a Waldorf High School

However, it’s understandable that some students will want to seek out additional opportunities to demonstrate the “rigor of their secondary school record,” and I believe that it is our responsibility as counselors and administrators to provide accurate and timely information to those Waldorf students and families about how what is available to them outside of their high school’s curriculum. We should educate the high school community at large in a general sense about these options, and inform especially interested students and families about specific opportunities they can seek out. I share with Waldorf students and families that they have access to additional academic coursework through dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take community college courses for both high school and college credit, generally with the registration/tuition fees waived. Those courses could be a way to take a more advanced or accelerated offering in one of the core subjects, or a chance to try out an interesting subject not offered in high school, such as marketing, kinesiology, cinema studies, or anthropology. There are also numerous online courses available to students, either for credit or not, through platforms like Coursera, edX, and Udemy, and a wide range of academic programs offered during the summer months. Students can still take AP courses by registering through a reputable online school (which counselors/administrators can help them locate) or can take AP exams by reaching out to a local high school that offers them and has space for an additional student to sit in.

Show Families What Highly Selective Colleges Look For

Beyond those structured, course-style offerings to demonstrate additional academic rigor, Waldorf school students are, in some ways, in a strong position to be able to participate in research or creative/passion projects during their high school years. Selective colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania have emphasized that many of the students in their recently admitted classes have been involved in academic research as high schools students. In addition to their senior research project, Waldorf School of Orange County students complete an 8th-grade project based on a specific topic of their choosing. One of our current graduating seniors used her initial 8th-grade project idea as a springboard for continued research and tinkering in the areas of biomimicry and robotics, and she was recently awarded a US patent for her work over the past several years. I believe that the opportunities like these that Waldorf students are afforded to explore their academic curiosities can continue to provide a path toward self-guided or mentor-guided research that more students should pursue. This idea extends to creative/passion projects as well; I have worked with students over the past two years who are pursuing passions in musical composition and production, culinary arts, creative writing, film production, and more, and most of them say they initially discovered those passions through a school project or activity. College programs in the visual/performing arts, architecture, filmmaking, and creative writing usually require students to submit a portfolio of their work for acceptance, so Waldorf students who are interested in these areas of study can benefit from the increased emphasis on creative work at their school.

What Waldorf Counselors and Administrators Should Do

As counselors and administrators, we should help these students find opportunities to pursue their academic curiosity and creativity beyond the classroom, both for the intrinsic value and for how they can help those students reach their post-graduation goals.

As Waldorf School counselors and administrators, we know that the students under our mentorship are fantastically gifted, well-rounded, curious young adults, and we know they have what it takes to excel in a rigorous college environment. Beyond helping students to articulate the value of their Waldorf education and, in some cases, guiding their search for additional opportunities, what can we do to help colleges see what we see in our students? We can put the utmost thought and care into the official high school documents that we are responsible for:

  • a clear & thorough school profile,

  • well-organized official transcripts,

  • and detailed, heartfelt letters of recommendation.

We can use our knowledge of the higher education and college admissions landscape to help students and parents distinguish between truth and rumor in areas like ACT/SAT testing, financial aid, and how colleges evaluate their extracurricular activity records. We can share informative resources that we and others in our field have created to simplify what might seem like complicated topics for our families. We can encourage students to both enjoy each new experience in high school for what it provides them at the moment, while also encouraging them to reflect throughout their high school years on how their experiences are shaping their growth. Through all of this, it’s crucial that we remain mindful that teen students are constantly working hard to balance multiple responsibilities, and our job should be to reduce, rather than increase, their stress levels.

Looking Back

During the two years I have worked with the Waldorf School of Orange County, I have been struck by how comfortable the students seem to be at approaching and asking questions to college representatives who visit the campus. While this trait of being adept at interacting with adults is not a Waldorf exclusive by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t think it’s an accident, either; one of the key aspects of a Waldorf education is an emphasis on growing the whole person, which includes the development of strong social skills. Besides, once these students have conquered the public speaking gauntlet of writing and performing their junior-year monologues in front of an audience, why would they be spooked by a simple conversation with a college rep? I think that the college reps notice it too; sure, they might want to talk about the cool projects Waldorf students get to work on that set the student experience apart from the average school, but they definitely see how curious, poised, and respectful those students are when they come to pick up a brochure or ask about dorms. We, the counselors and administrators, know that the students under our guidance will have grown to meet the challenge of a rigorous college education by the time they make it to graduation. Let’s do everything we can to help college admissions decision-makers understand how ready these students are to join their campus community if given the opportunity.


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