By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
Are you interested in going to college? Do you wonder what college is or what it would be like? Do you maybe not even know anyone who went to college? I want to go on record as telling you that you CAN go to college. You can do this. You can set college as a goal, and you can get there, and you can succeed there. I know because I was the first person from my family to do it.
When I think about first-generation college students (called “first gens”), I think our journey to college falls into a few steps:
1. Set the goal to go to college
2. Get admitted
3. Succeed while there
Set the Goal to Go to College
Setting the goal is not as easy as people think. When no one in your house has gone, they don’t (always) expect you to go either, and they don’t always know to do the things to help you get there. This is not because they don’t want you to go to college; it’s just because they don’t know what it means and they don’t know what it takes. You need to set your own goal, and in a lot of ways you’ll need to be a pathfinder and a trailblazer because you will be taking yourself and your family into foreign territory. You will be educating yourself and educating them at the same time, and neither of these is always easy. BUT IT IS ALWAYS WORTH IT, SO DO NOT GIVE UP. If you ever feel like giving up, find a mentor who cares about you and tells them you need encouragement!
The first part is to set the goal. Why should you go to college? Well, because you will have an easier time being gainfully employed for the rest of your life, you’ll get to pursue a career that fulfills you, you usually make far more money with a college degree than without one, and you get to work with your mind by using your gifts and talents to contribute to society. I should also mention that college is so much fun! You meet really interesting people, you get smarter, you learn so much, you have interesting conversations, and you get tons of cool opportunities through campus activities. In every, every way, college is worth it.
This begins freshman year of high school when your GPA starts to count. You get three years to create your GPA for college: freshman, sophomore, and Junior. After Junior year you apply to college, so while your Senior year grades do matter because the colleges check them, many colleges make their decisions before they see your January grades from the Senior year. Your GPA is the NUMBER ONE FACTOR for your college admissions, and the higher it is, the more merit money (like scholarships) you will get from your colleges, so protect your GPA and focus on it.
Freshman and Sophomore year, try to get involved at least a little bit in your school and/or community. You will need some activities to report on your college applications; volunteering and leadership look terrific, and sports can help you get into better schools. Start an activity Resume on CollegeMapper and then Senior year you will attach it to your applications.
During Junior year, you need to do your best on the admissions tests (SAT or ACT). Many kids find the ACT easier, so definitely take it to see how you do. At the public library or even at school, they usually have prep books for the SAT and the ACT and it is a great idea for you to spend some time prepping before you take the test. Many kids spend 3 months. When you are the first gen, the colleges know that you may not have people at home pushing you to prep for the tests, so don’t be discouraged if your scores are a little lower than you might like them. The colleges understand and they are very interested in helping first gens get to college. This does not mean that you can blow off the test; do your best and you can get into better colleges. They want to know that you can succeed when you get there, and they look at your GPA and test scores to decide that. Your school counselor can give you fee waivers to pay for these tests. Most kids take the test twice and usually their second score is the better one that they send to colleges.
Pick your colleges carefully; use the search engine on CollegeMapper. Make sure you have Safety, Match and Reach schools on your list. Ask your counselor or a mentor to review your list with you before you apply–or post your list into the Forum on CollegeMapper (with your GPA and test scores) and ask for feedback from guidance counselors there. Don’t be afraid to look a little farther from home. Many colleges will pay to fly you in for a visit, especially if you are bringing a diversity of any sort to the college–geographic diversity counts. And often going to a college farther from home can be cheaper than going to your state school because private colleges have more merit aid to give away.
The price-tag on a college is meaningless. Private colleges can often be cheaper than state schools–even with travel considered–because private schools give the most merit aid. Do the Net Price Calculator on each college’s website to see what the predicted cost may be for you and your particular family situation. Do not build your college list on the published cost of colleges. Good criteria to check is “Percent of Need Met”. This tells you if that college is generous with financial aid and will work to meet all of your demonstrated need (as determined by the FAFSA, which you complete in January of Senior year).
Start your applications and essays in Fall of your Senior year, and try to have them all submitted by Thanksgiving. Get feedback on your essays, and have a trusted adult look over each application before you submit it, to catch any silly errors. When something really matters, we work hard on it, so get some help. Also, ask each college if you can get a fee waiver for the application; they have these–all you have to do is ask. Your counselor can also give you fee waivers to send your test scores to the colleges.
January–do the FAFSA this month. The FAFSA is the Free Application for Financial Student Aid which will tell you and your colleges what the government determines as your “need” for college and what your family can realistically contribute. The FAFSA is free and you want to do it in January. You will need your parents’ information to complete it.
Succeed When You Get There
Join groups for first-gen students–Most colleges have groups for kids who are the first from their families to go to college and this is an excellent way for you to get the encouragement you need. These groups are great places to talk about how classes work, how the dining system works, and what resources are available for financial support–like work study. Also, it’s nice to have friends who feel that they are in “foreign territory”, too, so that you don’t feel silly asking your questions. I think the greatest benefit of being with other first gens from time to time is that you can hold one another accountable to stay in college and do you’re very best. It’s important to have encouragement because college takes a lot of energy and determination, so lean on your friends. You can do this!
Take advantage of all academic support services–there are free math and writing labs on most campuses, and kids form study groups to help one another get through tough classes. Just ask people to be in a study group and they will happily accept because everyone needs support and teamwork always help. Plus it’s a great way to make friends. And absolutely get to know your academic adviser. Ask for their input on your schedule each semester or quarter–before you choose your classes. Also, lay out a four-year course plan with their help–this is so helpful for you to see the bigger picture and realize that you are going to graduate from college, which is very exciting!
Protect your GPA (for jobs and grad school, if you choose to go)–Every class counts, so choose your classes carefully and ALWAYS make studying your first priority. Get your homework done first, and it will take longer than it did in high school, and then you can go play and be active in your clubs and organizations. No one is going to hire you because you were president of 3 clubs; people will hire you because you did a fabulous job in your program and succeeded in your classes.
Get involved on campus–This helps you feel connected and helps you make friends. College is not all about work, so get out there and meet people and join some fun groups on campus. You will never again have so many fun opportunities offered to you in one place and nearly all for free!
Picture yourself with that diploma. Picture yourself in that graduation gown in the stadium, getting your picture taken with your parents, siblings, and grandparents. Set the goal that you can do this because it is SO VERY worth it! Your teachers and mentors and I all believe in you. CollegeMapper sets you up on a clear plan, step by step, starting in 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grade–whenever you start, the plan is built just for you.
If you have any questions ever, about anything relating to college admissions, just post them in the Forum. The website and Forum and free because I want to help you get to college. College was the single most life-changing decision I ever made, and I think it will be for you, too. Set your goal to get to college and graduate. You CAN do this!