Working with First-Generation College Applicants - Part I

As a college counselor, you can help first-generation college applicants get into the best schools for their social, academic, and professional goals.

While I wasn't technically a first-generation college student, neither of my parents had a "traditional" college experience. My mom went to a secretarial business school back when such places existed (I picture rows and rows of bespectacled, cardigan-clad young girls typing away furiously à la Mad Men). My dad was a minister and worked while taking college classes off and on over the span of about 10 years, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in theology.

Between their atypical paths in higher education and the fact that college admission had evolved a great deal in the 18 years I'd spent growing up and working toward it, my parents were relatively ill-equipped to help me in this department. They did the best they could with their limited knowledge of things like application essays and FAFSA requirements, but in retrospect, I should have been more proactive in seeking the advice of my high school counselor.

College counselors can play an invaluable role in the lives of first-generation college applicants and other students who may not have the support of an informed, collegiately experienced parent or older sibling. You may even end up acting as their singular source of guidance in the college admission process.

No pressure, right?

On the contrary, this is your opportunity to do what you do best: help students get into, and thrive in, the best schools for their social, academic, and professional goals. In this post and the next, I'll explore a few of the ways in which you can approach the rewarding challenge of working with first-generation college applicants.

Find your first-generation students early on

When faced with a new class of freshmen, try to get a sense of your students' backgrounds and determine who among them could potentially be the first in their families to attend college. They'll benefit from a bit of extra attention throughout their high school years, and getting them on the right track from the get-go will increase their chances of going to college. Help them devise a plan of attack for the next four years. Encourage them to take AP classes, which will help prepare them for college-level course work and potentially save them money on tuition through AP credit. Help them find extracurricular activities that they're interested in and will want to stick with long term. Maintaining leadership positions throughout high school will stand out on college applications. If possible, find out what these students' family situations are like and how involved their parents may or may not be in the college admission process. In short, establishing which students are going to need a little extra support and encouragement along the way will help you become better equipped to give them exactly that.

Foster college and career exploration

First-generation college applicants may have had limited exposure to the concept of college life in any capacity, and they may be wholly unaware of the countless options that are available to them. Where to begin? Start by asking them what kind of college experience they want to have. Would they prefer a large public university with a diverse student body and extensive resources? Or do they picture themselves strolling across a quaint, snow-covered campus in New England with a low student-faculty ratio? The sooner they start pondering these questions, the better. Encourage them to start visiting campuses within driving distance and exploring the websites of schools that are farther out. They should also start thinking about which majors and careers pique their interest, as that will help inform the list of schools to which they will eventually apply. Discuss their long-term professional goals and help them find schools with strong programs in those areas. As the first in their families to attend college, they'll be venturing into unknown and possibly intimidating territory. Doing some research and contemplating important questions about their future well in advance will help minimize thier anxieties.

Find money for college costs

Like many high schoolers, I didn't have the benefit of a college fund waiting for me once I walked the stage in cap and gown senior year. Fortunately, I managed to figure out the FAFSA on my own, and I was able to pay my tuition through a combination of loans and grants. It was only after I'd graduated from college that I truly realized how many scholarships are just sitting around, waiting for takers. There are many private and institutional scholarships available for first-generation students, and CollegeXpress is a great place to start looking for them. Many schools are sympathetic to these students and even go out of their way to accommodate them. Click here for a list of colleges that try hardest to meet the financial need of traditionally underrepresented students. There's no reason to let the ever-rising cost of a college education stand in the way of getting one. As a college counselor, you can help ease your students' financial concerns by explaining the FAFSA and directing them to the scholarship resources they'll need.

In my next post, I'll discuss getting the family involved and helping your students keep their eyes on the prize and transition to college life.

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college applications college counselors financial aid first-generation students scholarships

About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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