Senior year is a time full of learning and discovery, when high school students come into their own as adults. Students start transitioning away from the familiarity of family, friends, and high school life and begin to make plans for the future. For many, myself included, this involves planning for college.
The college application process is a time when even the most basic question of “where do I want to attend school?” can stir up feelings overwhelming anxiety. For first-generation college students, the entire process can become extremely daunting. Many of these students come from low-income families in a poor socioeconomic standing, and have less support from family during an unfamiliar application process.
While these barriers are often challenging, first-generation students can set up a good college foundation before they ever set foot on campus. Students can achieve this by first finding a trusted individual to guide them through the process–someone who will help them prepare academically, consider their finances, and research prospective schools to find the best fit.
1. Find a mentor
It’s especially important for first-generation college students to turn to a person who understands the extensive paperwork, research, and deadlines involved in the process.
School guidance counselors are a great resource for students preparing for college, and can help you navigate the questions that arise about careers, schools you’re considering attending, courses to take, as well as the steps necessary to get there. If you’re parents are supportive of your decision to attend college, they’re a great resource to help keep track of deadlines, and probably have questions in mind that you hadn’t considered yet yourself.
Other students and programs can also be a great help as you head into your last few years of high school. Connect with other students going through the process through clubs, support groups, and classes. Likely, they will be experiencing the same stresses and struggles as you are.
2. Prepare academically while in high school
Once you have community support, the process of applying for college becomes much easier. But without the foundational work put in place, studies have shown that many first-generation students enter higher education unprepared or behind.
One of the best ways to combat this statistic is by enrolling in a strong academic program in high school. Skating by on minimum requirements to graduate does nothing for your educational advancement after senior year.
Many colleges recommend the following curriculum for high school students in order to be prepared for the rigorous classroom environment present in higher ed:
- Four years of English
- Three years of math
- Three years of social sciences
- Three years of natural sciences
- Two or more years of a foreign language
- Humanities, such as music, art, or drama
- Electives that spark your strengths and talents such as computer science, journalism, or fine art
Not only do these courses speak to your dedication to learning from an admissions standpoint, but taking a wide variety of courses will let you know early on what you enjoy studying, which helps when choosing a degree path.
Courses aside, consider participating in extracurricular activities that spark your interests, such as volunteering, joining a school club, participating in athletics, or joining community orchestras. Academics aside, admissions counselors are scoping candidates to see what they can add to an already established college culture.
3. Consider your areas of interest
As any college grad will tell you, it’s important to study your passions, rather than worry exclusively about the salary you’ll make afterwards. Plenty of people have started off in fields of study that have promising salaries, and trudged through years of dissatisfaction only to finally alter their course to study what their actual interests are.
Often times, studying something you’re not passionate about leads to frequently changing majors, increased length of time spent in college, failing classes, or sometimes leaving school altogether.
That said, it’s also important to consider the economic climate you’ll be facing as a graduate, and the kind of careers possible with any given degree. The harsh reality is that students graduating with humanities degrees are earning just a fraction of what their peers in the Engineering Department earn. That’s not to say that you should study STEM fields in lieu of pursuing your musical passions, but there are ways to make a music degree marketable after college, such as earning a teaching certification, or double majoring.
In addition to choosing a major, it might be valuable to alternatively look into possible careers you’re interested in. Then, you can discover how those fit into to higher education. Who knew that landing a gig in the video gaming industry was as simple as studying communication or art? Or that a career as a legal assistant could be aided with a history degree? Or that you don’t have to work in a hospital to be a nurse?
There are often different and surprising pathways you can take when looking to join a certain field. Knowing what it takes to get to those positions is a surefire way to ensure success in your major.
4. Don’t blow off researching your institution
About one in three students who enroll in a two or four year college will transfer at some point, according to the New York Times. Students transfer schools at such a high rate partially because they don’t put in the time and energy to make sure they are a right fit for their desired institution. Given that there are thousands of colleges out there, it’s important that you find a school that you’ll thrive in. Narrowing that list down to a few choice schools can be a daunting process in and of itself. Here are some factors to consider when researching schools you might be interested in applying to:
- How large of a school would you like to attend?
- Do you want to go to a prestigious university?
- Is location important to you?
- Will you need financial assistance?
- Is the cost of the institution something that might cause a barrier?
- Is there a support program for students like you? First-time college student? Female college student? Minority college student?
- Does it make more sense to start at a community college and later transfer to a four year institution?
- Are there extracurriculars that you would like to be involved in?
- Does the school offer a wide variety of majors, in case you decide to change your degree path?
These questions will help shape your college search, and more easily narrow down schools you may be interested in. Once you have a healthy list, delve deeper, visit the campuses, and feel free to pester the admissions staff–that’s what they’re there for.
5. Consider the financial implications of going to school
College is not a cheap endeavor. While finances shouldn’t be the only determining factor to consider when choosing an institution, most college students graduate with over $30,000 worth of debt, making finances hard to ignore. While many educators argue that you get what you pay for in regards to higher education, many administrators are starting to suggest otherwise.
Whether you go the Ivy League route, or the community college route, there are many ways students can limit the blow of student loan debt.
The first step in doing so is filling out your FAFSA, which should be done the January before your first semester of college. The FAFSA is used to determine the amount of money a family is expected to contribute to the total cost of attending a postsecondary institution. The results of the FAFSA then determine your eligibility for student grants, work study, and student loans.
Additionally, apply for scholarships as early as possible. Many students treat this as a part-time job once their senior year starts, and it pays off in the long run. While scholarship amounts vary greatly per application, scholarships with low dollar figures are still worth applying for. Although $250 doesn’t seem like much money in the long term, you’ll thank yourself during textbook season.
Consider finding an official benefactor, such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corp, or an ROTC program. Each of these offer college money in exchange for service commitment.
Nearly four out of five college students are working part-time while studying for their degree, but nontraditional students are more likely to work while attending school than their peers. Though working while pursuing an education has its own set of challenges, many students are able to avoid incurring additional student loans to pay for housing and meals, simply by working on the weekends. Some innovative companies, such as McDonalds, Pepsi, and Target offer tuition reimbursement for employees who meet certain criteria. Other innovators have partnered up with institutions to offer 100 percent tuition coverage for their eligible employees, such as Starbucks’ recent partnership with Arizona State University. Even something as simple as choosing the right part time job can save you thousands of dollars in the long run.
Preparing yourself for college is a stressful and complicated undertaking for any student. The process of applying for college often exacerbates the already difficult transition to becoming an adult. For first-generation students, the process is further complicated, and many students feel immediately disadvantaged when navigating this process for the first time. But by planning ahead, reaching out to mentors and students, and prioritizing research, students can overcome these obstacles in order to have a successful college experience.
written by Mallorie Kimball