Tips for First-Generation College Applicants

<address class="byline author vcard">By MICHELE HERNANDEZ</address>

Dr. Michele Hernandez is the former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College, co-founder of Application Boot Camp On-Demand, and the author of several books on college admissions.

Dr. Michele Hernandez Dr. Michele Hernandez

If you’re among those who are applying to college as a first-generation student (meaning your parents never attended college) and you’re hesitant to talk about your parents’ educational attainment, you’re not alone. Thirty percent of entering freshmen in the United States are first-generation college students.

I field college admissions questions from thousands of families, and notice that first-generation students are often reluctant to identify themselves as such. They may feel slightly ashamed of the situation or think it is irrelevant.

But instead of hiding this critical information, first-generation students should highlight it. Why? Many colleges track this nonacademic statistic. The class of 2015 at Dartmouth College has 108 first-generation students, and 14 percent of the University of Pennsylvania’s class of 2016 are first-generation college students.

Admissions officers seek a diverse student body and want to hear about the forces that have shaped a student’s life, including if you are the first in your family to attend college.

Here are a few additional tips for first-generation college applicants:

Define ‘First-Generation’

The National Center for Education Statistics defines first-generation students as “undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.” But it’s always best to check a particular school’s understanding of first generation.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, defines first-generation students as “…those who will be the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college,” implying that if a parent attended a two-year college, the student could still be considered first generation.

If only one of your parents attended college, you may not be considered a first-generation college applicant. However, if you have a sibling who attended college, and your parents did not, in most cases you will be considered a first-generation student.

Complete Optional Application Sections

The additional information section on the Common Application is an ideal place for you to write an essay that highlights how your life has been shaped by having parents who did not attend college. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate what attending college means to you, given your background. By opting out of this section, you lose a chance to set yourself apart from your peers.

Look for Resources at Your School

Statistics show that first-generation students often need more support. Nationally, 89 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.

Unfortunately, many first-generation college applicants don’t have parental support to help guide them through the application process. Seek help by contacting the admissions office at your prospective colleges to ask if they have programs, guides or other resources for first-generation students.

Many colleges and universities are waiting with open arms and have resources to help first-generation students thrive. Dartmouth College, for example, started their First Year Student Enrichment Program as well as a First Generation Network support system. The University of Iowa provides a program called First Generation Iowa to students, M.I.T. has the First Generation Project and Clemson University offers a FIRST-Generation Success Program.

If a college representative is visiting your high school for an information session, use the opportunity to meet the representative and identify yourself as a first-generation student. This will help you build personal connections and may lead to personalized support during your college admissions process.


Do you have admissions advice for first-generation college applicants? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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