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Applying to College: 7 Tips for First-Generation Students

By Gianna Sen-Gupta

Everyone who wants to get a college education should have the chance, but for some students it can feel like there are too many barriers in the way.

For first-generation students — or those who are the first in their family to attend college — those obstacles on the road to college can be completely overwhelming. While parents of first-gen students often want to help their children attend and succeed in college, a lack of experience and prior knowledge can keep them from doing so, and as a result, first-gen students are often left with far more uncertainty in their academic futures.

According to Chelsea Jones, the associate director of student programs at I’m First, a nonprofit that supports first-generation students, “about 15 million students are enrolled in a post secondary institution. 30% of those students (or 4.5 million) are low-income, first-generation students.” What’s more, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that first-generation students often receive the same amount of assistance from their schools despite often needing extra attention due to a lack of resources at home. They are also less likely to take college prep courses or even apply to college at all.

At NerdScholar, we strive to give non-traditional students the resources and information they need to apply to college and beyond. To do this, we asked college admissions experts — many who were first-generation students themselves — to share crucial advice for future first-gen students applying to college in the fall.

Stay tuned for more advice on applying to college that’s designed for non-traditional populations, including veterans and LGBTQ students, in the coming weeks.

1. Know that you will succeed.
Applying to college is no easy task, but it is by no means out of your reach. “My first piece of advice,” says Chris Hooker-Haring, dean of admissions and financial aid at Muhlenberg College, “is that you can do this! It may seem complicated and difficult at first,” he adds, but “there are potentially big rewards as a result of doing it!”

One of the biggest roadblocks stopping first-gen students from attending college is the belief that they aren’t ready for the academic rigor of college courses. In reality, this is far from the truth. Lorenzo Gamboa, associate director of admissions at Santa Clara University, encourages students to always believe in their academic potential. By underestimating your abilities, Gamboa says, you are “unnecessarily limiting your options, often by excluding selective institutions.”

2. Don’t underestimate the support you’ll receive.
Above all, know that you are not alone. There are other students who’ve been where you are, as well as admissions and guidance counselors who want to help you succeed. Treat your college application the same way you would a potential job opportunity, advises Lieutenant Colonel John Powell Jr., director of admissions at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. “Every college has an admissions representative who is eager to assist you”, he says.

Becky Wai-Ling Packard, an associate dean of faculty and professor of educational psychology at Mount Holyoke College—and a former first –generation student herself—says to never “assume that a particular college or university is or is not a good fit for you, or that you can or cannot afford it. Some schools have a stronger support structure for students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds than others,” she says, “and many will provide more generous financial aid or advising support than you realize.”

For example, Powell says, The Citadel offers online live chat sessions with admissions counselors, who are also accessible via email or in person.

3. Seek out help and advice from your high school.
Though college admissions counselors are a great point of reference, the best advice might come from those who know you best. According to Kathryn Baugher, the interim associate vice president for enrollment at St. Bonaventure University, “Students need mentors who can guide and coach them through the process and be a source of encouragement and future vision. This can be a guidance counselor, an adult in an organization or church, an extended family member or sibling.” Whomever you choose to seek advice from, Baugher says, these people can be a great “source of encouragement and an obstacle blocker when challenges come along.”

“Once on campus,” Haring says, “it again becomes important to find a mentor or an advisor who can be helpful, be a sounding board and provide support.”

4. Attend local college fairs or free on-campus programs.
Going to college fairs in your area is an easy way to immerse yourself in the college culture on a limited budget. Still, there’s nothing quite like visiting your dream campus in person. Laura Stratton, director of admissions at Scripps College, says, “Many colleges offer fly-in programs where students can see the school for themselves at little to no cost. These programs usually include transportation, meals, and a wide variety of sessions and activities to see if the school is a good match for you.”

A 2013 Scripps College graduate and first-generation student, Lyanne Dominguez suggests, “applying to as many fly-in programs as possible. It is drastically different getting to know a school from a computer screen versus stepping on the campus and interacting with students and faculty.”

If attending an on-campus program is out of the equation, turn to local college fairs instead. “Maximize your personal knowledge and network by attending district college fairs,” Gamboa advises. “Talk with the admission representative and never leave without a business card while writing their answers on the back.”

5. Ask questions.
Don’t let uncertainty hold you back when making an important life choice like choosing a college. When it comes to understanding the application process and where you should apply, Stratton encourages first-gen students to speak up and ask questions. “Google terms you aren’t familiar with and follow up via phone or email if you don’t initially understand a part of the application, admission or financial aid process. Admission counselors can break things down in easy-to-understand steps and explain the confusing terminology,” she says.

Baugher recommends asking your high school’s “guidance office for some websites that have some basic questions you can answer [and] that will help you identify colleges that might be a good fit for you.”

6. Speak with first-generation students currently enrolled in school.
Don’t reinvent the wheel when other first-generation students can help you navigate the application process. Speak with friends or friends of friends currently in school and ask to hear their story.

It’s also extremely helpful to hear from students currently enrolled in the school you hope to attend. Powell recommends asking “your admissions representative if you can be introduced (even if it is virtually) to a current student.” Your peers, after all, can best illustrate what attending college is really like from a first-gen student’s perspective.

7. Make a plan to stay on top of your application.
When it’s time to fill out your college applications, Powell offers more sage advice: “What I have found is that each prospective student who will be the first in his or her family to attend college needs to make a study of the application process itself.”

“Many are unaware of the amount of time it takes to prepare, just to apply. Make a college application plan and timeline that includes a minimum of three colleges,” he says, “one that is the top choice and a bit of a stretch, one that is a more realistic target, and finally one that he or she will most certainly be accepted to attend.”

Be meticulous in your planning, Powell adds, by including “a list of items [to] gather such as transcripts, copies of awards certificates and teacher recommendations, as well as a calendar for each of the colleges that highlights deadlines for all required materials.”

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