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Supporting first generation college bound students

May 1st is behind us, the national SIR (Student Intent to Register) deadline. In other words, the date that seniors in high school must submit their intent to register and deposit at the college they will be attending that fall. Across the country, students sigh with relief, smile with excitement, and start planning their next steps in financing an increasingly high cost of attendance (COA). 

Starting in earnest during the junior year, students knowingly or not, embark on the initial steps in the application process: standardized testing, planning course loads to reflect rigor within the context of their high school, whilst also balancing time, energy, and mental well being. On top of this, there is of course the struggles of wading through the noise that our culture creates around what it means to get into a “good” college. It’s enough to make the best of us anxious, and that’s even if we know and understand the roadmap towards reaching this goal. For first-generation college-bound students, navigating this gauntlet is like looking into a black hole. They must be reliant on the internet, and hopefully, a few caring mentors are on the sidelines, pointing them in the right direction. 

After a career as a college counselor for over a decade, I know one thing for sure, it takes a village to support teenagers through this process, particularly for first-generation students, many of whom have high financial needs and competing responsibilities.

Here is a list of 4 things any educator or mentor can do to support this group of students through one of the most important milestones of their almost-adult life. 

1. Apply for Fly-in programs 

Many liberal arts colleges offer summer programming on their campuses for rising seniors to get a sense of their campuses and get a head start on the application process. High schools can nominate students who qualify (some programs are for first-generation students, others are for students of color, and still for first-generation students of color).

These fly-ins demystify the application process, and also bring a cohort of students together to support each other since they are going through a similar experience. has aggregated a 2022 list of fly-in programs, detailing which ones cover travel costs. 

2. Complete the FAFSA early. 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be completed as early as Oct. 1st of the year the student applies to college. The earlier the student completes the FAFSA the better, and the application can be completed using the prior year’s taxes.

For example, if the application is being completed in 2022, students can use tax information from the 2021 year. This application is challenging for first-time applicants and their parents to understand. This guide outlines the 8 main steps to completing the FAFSA. If you are a mentor to a first-time college student, reminding them to start the FAFSA on October 1st is critical, as it often takes time to get all the documents collected to complete the form. Students will not receive notification of their financial aid award packages until the college receives the FAFSA.

For undocumented students whose parents may not file taxes, it is a good idea to contact the college’s financial aid office about the best way to be considered for aid. If a student is undocumented, they are ineligible for federal student aid, but some colleges may still want the student to complete the form on paper to get a sense of the family’s finances.

The cost of college ranges from around $25,000/year for the in-state cost of attendance to upwards of $85,000/year for private institutions. Having realistic discussions and coaching your student on how to think about the cost of college and the debt ratio is important as most teenagers don’t have a sense of such a high yearly cost. Starting the FAFSA early helps broach this topic early. 

3. Combat the Imposter Syndrome using the Personal Statement.

It’s easy to feel like an imposter when your peers seem to understand the college-going culture, and you are just trying to make sense of the application. Every student has the right to a college education, but it’s hard to remember that when the entire concept seems foreign and out of reach.

Help students combat imposter syndrome by reminding them that colleges want first-generation students in their classrooms and value the voices of students who have different contextual and cultural affordances. The personal statement and other essays asking about personal identity and background are a great place to begin writing about one’s individual experience, even if, and especially if, the student is the first one in their family to pursue higher education. Rather than an area to feel worried about, the essay section can be used to amplify the student’s unique voice by sharing why they wish to attend college, what they are going to do with the opportunity, and how they have worked towards this moment.

The Common Application is used by more than 900 colleges. The personal statement prompts can be found here. Prompts may change by August 2022, but typically any changes to the prompts are slight. 

4. Encourage Self-Advocacy

What I have learned over the past decade as a college counselor, is that the pressure students feel regarding the college process is more immense than I could ever imagine.

Making sure they know you’re there if they need you is the most important thing you can do for a senior as they approach their college admissions process. Let your students know you are there to help when it comes to essays, recommendation letters, or deadline reminders, but encourage them to take control of their own process.

When they have a question, suggest that they email or call the college admissions office directly. Remind them to use their problem-solving skills, just as they would any other major life event. Checking email for important responses from colleges such as instructions on how to create their login for the application portal for a specific college is a must.

While teenagers prefer texting, staying on top of email from this point moving forward is how colleges will let students know about their acceptances and financial aid awards. 

This moment in time for teenagers is a huge wake-up call. While many high school classrooms encourage a growth mindset, the college process is pretty black and white. Deadlines are firm.

Students are expected to read directions carefully and follow them to a T. The best way for educators to support first-generation college-bound students, particularly if there is little knowledge about college at home, is to remind them they are capable, deserving, and are a value-added to any institution. 

Guide them to square away the financial aid forms as early as possible, encourage them to use the essays to their advantage, and when they come to you confused or scared about something they don’t understand, suggest they use their adulting skills and call admissions offices themselves. 

It’s important to realize that first-generation college students are not just embarking on college to further their own goals or prove that they themselves have “made it.”  More often than not, they are making this leap to higher education on behalf of their entire families.

The bumper sticker on the back of the car or the “Proud parent” sweatshirt symbolizes the immense sacrifices that the family has made to get to this point in time. Your support and empathy as an adult who sees students as academic and intellectual contributors mean everything. 

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