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What First-Generation Students’ Families Should Do before Applying for College

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It’s not a mystery -- getting into college is hard. It’s a time-consuming process that is full of ups and downs, and it’s not always clear what the best path is for your student. But don’t let this process intimidate you. First, know that you are not alone. Most, if not all families need support and resources to navigate this time with their student. And second, don’t forget: your student is college material. You just need to support them in finding the right fit so they can be successful in their future. Navigating the college application process is different for every family, but here are some things to keep in mind for first-generation students and their families when starting off on this journey.

  1. Expose Your Student to College Early

    If college isn’t a part of your regular conversations with your child, start making it a priority to talk about and experience college. This can be anything from talking about colleges at the dinner table to exploring a college campus. Mo Hyman, the executive director of College Access Plan, says families should start locally.

    “Expose — as early as kindergarten – expose your students to college campuses and opportunities. What is local? Is there a local community college? Your kindergartener doesn’t know difference between community college and Harvard. They do know the difference between their elementary school and community college,” Hyman says.

    Experiencing a variety of college campuses not only gives your child a better understanding of what college is, but it’s also a window in to that world. “Go get near a college campus. Go to the library. Walk around. Point and talk about the things that are different than the school that they’re in. What this place is. Do this at different levels of specificity until they go to college,” Hyman says.

    Make connections to higher education whenever you can. While waiting at the doctor’s office, talk about the education required to become a doctor. Watching a Final Four game during March Madness basketball? These players are all students; talk about how they need to keep up their academics in order to play. There are little moments you can use to make college a normal part of life.

  2. Find Support

    It’s easy to feel alone in the college process when you haven’t been through it before, but there are plenty of people who are willing and able to help. Start in your own community.

    Licinia "Lulu" Barrueco Kaliher, director of first-years houses and training at the University of Pennsylvania, was a first-generation college student, and says her community helped fill in the gaps that her parents didn’t know. “Start in your own high school, start with guidance counselors. Find the community that you trust that’s already existing at your child’s school. You’re spending four years with teachers, other parents, and a school system that could help you better understand this process,” Barrueco Kaliher says.

    Teachers, school counselors, and other educators at your child’s school are a wealth of knowledge and can be a great starting point when it comes to answering questions. Don’t know where to start with college applications? Ask a school counselor. Does your teen need advice on writing their college personal essay? Seek out their English teacher. Are you confused about your role in all of this process? Talk to other parents at your child’s school.

  3. Know Your Student’s Options (They Have More Than You Think!)

    You may think that you can only afford one specific school. Or your student couldn’t possibly get into that university. And what on earth is an apprenticeship program? There are lots of options beyond the state university that everyone talks about.

    “You want to make sure that you and your students have the most options possible,” Hyman says. The best thing you and your student can do before starting college applications is to research a range of options. Don’t feel limited by preconceived ideas of what you think college has to be for your student.

    “Consider all options, there shouldn’t be hyper focus on four year degree,” says Marc Lo, the direct of Penn First Plus. “A bachelor’s degree is still open to students after doing a two-year program – and they’d be even better prepared. Definitely look at all degree options.”

    Encourage your child to talk to people about their education and career paths. As a parent, you can help them find these connections. They could be friends, family members, or other local people in the community. Try to cast a wide net so your student starts to see the variety of educational experiences that exist all around them.

    Finally, you and your student can explore all the options for education after high school here.

  4. Remember: There is Money

    It’s no secret—paying for college isn’t cheap. One of the biggest factors that determines where and when students go to college is cost. In fact, 67 percent of families consider the price of a school when making a decision, according to the 2016 Sallie Mae study, “How America Pays for College.” And it should be a factor – but know that you can set your student up to have choices.

    One of the best ways to ensure your student can make choices in their education after high school is to save for it. Start saving for college as early as possible. One way is to start is through a 529 plan. Also known as a “qualified tuition plan,” a 529 plan is a tax-advantaged education savings account operated by a state or financial institution. Lean more about it here.

    Beyond saving, there are lots of ways to get funding for students that need it. “First families need to know: College is available. There is money. Start thinking long term,” Hyman says. This money ranges from FAFSA, federal grants, scholarships, and student loans. Make sure to look in to these options early, and speak with your student’s school counselor about your options.

    And remember, the most expensive school is not the best school. “I think every parent should know that sending your child to a school that you can’t afford as a family doesn’t make you a good parent. And not doing that doesn’t make you a bad parent,” says Sara Goldrick Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. “College is supposed to lift you out of poverty, not create more poverty.”

    Just remember that it is possible for you and your student can pay for their college education. Consider all options and types of education. Start thinking about money and making plans early. Explore more resources in Parent Toolkit’s financial literacy section.

  5. Help Your Student Build Strong Academic Habits

    Grades and academics do matter a lot when it comes to applying to college. Before your child even begin to think about college applications, help support them in making sure they have a strong foundation of study skills. “You don’t want to just have one option – you want to have choices. This means that your student needs to be as strong academically as they can be,” Hyman says.

    This starts with having dedicated time and space to study and do homework. “Create quiet spaces for your student to do work, which can be hard if you have multiple generations living in the same house or many siblings. So take your kid to library to do homework. Expose them to the world of ideas and school-focused habits,” Hyman suggests.

    Learning how to study is an important skill for high school and college success. Students should start utilizing various learning strategies early, including reading, summarizing, visualizing, writing and more. This will help your child learn what their best method of studying is and become more efficient at learning material. Experimenting with different studying strategies can also help your student learn how to prepare for different types of papers, exams, and assignments. Students can take various learning styles assessments (like this one) to get a better sense what type of learning style they have.

    “Meet your student where they are – not every student can be the best scholar in their class. Everyone would have a 4.0 GPA if that were so. Meet them where they are and help them to be the best scholar that they can be.It opens up doors to have more opportunities when they’re ready to apply to college and to identify opportunities that match with them,” Hyman says.

    Here are some additional study skills your student should be prepared for when they do go to college.

  6. Give Your Child Space to Find Purpose Through Self-Exploration

    A big part of what college your child ends up attending should come down to who they are and what they are interested in. So, you need to give your child space to discover these things well before they apply to schools.

    “Encourage students early on to pursue things they’re good at, and go after them in a meaningful way. Parents already see their students as a whole person, and not just as a list of items or classes or abilities,” Hyman says. “Help your student find their superpowers – ‘oh you really like to hang out with animals. Let’s find opportunities for that.’ And if their superpower changes between 6th and 12th grade (because, of course!), talk about those changes.”

    When you help your child explore their interests, you begin to help them foster a sense of purpose—the meaning in their life that is at the core of everything they do. In The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life, William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”

    “When you think about the college experience, there’s a lot of challenges and work that goes into it. And there are bound to be setbacks, bound to be challenges, so purpose and resilience can be very helpful to those young people,” says Kendall Cotton Bronk, an associate professor of psychology at the Claremont Graduate University. “If you know what it is you’re really trying to accomplish – a bigger, grander vision – you can put up with more setbacks along the way.”

    So what does this mean for your student as they prepare to apply for college? Well, colleges are actually looking for applicants to connect their unique sense of purpose to the school they are applying to. In fact, the college personal essay is also referred to as a “statement of purpose.”

    “Students need to answer, ‘what is your purpose and how does this college play in to that?’ When students write purpose-inspired essays, I think that helps their chances,” Cotton Bronk says. “I’ve sat on college review committees—it’s nice to know that students have thought about your school and what kind of resources that school has available to fit their purpose.”

    Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard educator and co-director of the Making Caring Common Project,says this starts with cultivating experiences for your kids that are really meaningful and engaging.“It’s not the number of activities you do, it’s the quality of engagement,” Weissbourd said.

    Both Weissbourd and Hyman say that these meaningful opportunities don’t always have to be fancy extracurriculars. In fact, Hyman says helping out with family responsibilities – liking taking care of a little brother or sister – show a level of leadership and maturity that should be included on a college application.

    “Colleges have gotten really, really good at seeing whether or not a student is really investing or interested in things that they do. Colleges have gotten much better at seeing focus, authenticity, leadership, maturity,” Hyman says. “If you’re a student who maybe can’t do tons of extracurriculars because you’re helping with family responsibilities, colleges want to know that.”

  7. Be Prepared

    Once you realize your student has options, you can afford college, and your child is capable, you can start exploring and preparing. And families should make a plan – even if that plan ends up changing. “You have to have a plan. Nobody should start college applications without preparing for that,” Goldrick-Rab says.

    “I would make a plan the best you can as early as you can. Know that the college admissions process is much more nuanced than ‘what is the student’s GPA and what are their SAT scores?’ There are lots of details to keep track of, but it really and truly is an evaluation of the fit between the student and the institution,” Lo says.

    Fit can mean a lot of things, and that’s why preparation is so important. Start thinking about what makes sense for your student so they can be most successful. “Is it big, is it small? Do they like more intimate settings? Do I want a specialized college? Big sports teams? All of these questions – they can lead you to making a plan that will work for your student,” Hyman says.

    Lo also suggests factoring geographic location into your plan. “How far away the student is comfortable in terms of relocating or whether they want to stay at home? This can very quickly narrow down search radius. The number of higher education institutions ranges from 3500 to 4000, so the options are nearly endless to consider. Thinking really carefully about the where and why helps alieve some of the stress,” Lo says.

    This timeline can help you and your student make a plan, and keep track of all the details you need to keep in mind as you start this process.

    The college process doesn’t have to be scary. Once you start researching and asking for help, you’ll soon realize that there is a lot more out there for your student than you ever imagined. You’re raising a capable young adult who can be successful in this process and throughout their life. Keep these tips in mind as you and your student get ready for this transition. And don’t forget – you’ve got this!

This post originally appeared on, a project from NBC Learn.

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