To the Blue Collar Kids Applying to College

The author's high school yearbook picture.
Me at 17, sporting a truly awful haircut and braces. Carlisle High School Oracle, 2002.

Fifteen years ago, I was a high school senior ready to graduate and move on to bigger and better things. My parents had always expected me to pursue higher education, but they hadn’t gone to college themselves and couldn’t provide me much advice in the search and application process. My high school guidance counselor was responsible for too many students and didn’t know much about me beyond the grades and test scores in my school record. He didn’t have many occasions to see kids like me, the ones who usually showed up for school, got decent grades, and didn’t get into trouble very often. So, like many aspiring first-generation college students, I was unaware of most of the tips and tricks that some of my more privileged classmates had been taught.

I’ve always been pretty resourceful and independent, so I figured things out on my own, with the help of several books, a fantastic admission counselor at the college I ended up attending, and a financial aid office that was willing to work with me. I was accepted to the four colleges to which I applied and received a generous scholarship package from my top choice.

My college admissions journey didn’t end once I matriculated. As a student, I worked as an intern and work-study in the admissions office for three years. My first “real” job after graduation was an admission counselor position at a different liberal arts college. After leaving that job, I volunteered as an alumna admissions ambassador for my alma mater. I also went through the process of applying to law school, which is different than applying to college, but similar in many ways. Based on my experiences, below are some things I would tell my seventeen-year-old self if I could revisit 2002.

Me at 21. Hollins University Spinster, 2006.

A caveat: I graduated from college before the 2008 financial crash. Student debt is a scarier thing now than it was then. Politicians, student advocates, and the media are paying more attention to higher education’s return on investment, and parents are probably more likely to urge their children to choose a career that has some job security and income potential. The SAT has also changed significantly since I took it. Despite these changes in the landscape, I think the following advice remains relevant and, I hope, useful.

The SAT and ACT are teachable tests. The parents of many of your peers are spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on test prep courses. You don’t have to spend that much money, but you should prepare for these tests. Take as many practice tests as you can. Back in the day, I bought a Kaplan CD-ROM program that was really helpful. I was able to increase my score by a significant number of points after learning some test-taking tips and tricks. I think the program cost about $50 then; the Kaplan self-paced online course is now listed at $299. (There are probably other options available that are more affordable and just as effective.) I know that sounds like a lot of money, but it is a good investment. A better score will likely get you larger scholarship offers and may be a deciding factor in your admission to the school of your choice. On the other hand…

Standardized tests aren’t as important as they used to be. If you’re a senior planning to attend college in the fall, you probably already took the SAT or ACT, and you may not have a chance to take it again before the upcoming application deadlines. If you’re not happy with your score, don’t fret. A number of schools no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. If you took appropriate classes in high school and achieved good grades, you can still attend a great college or university regardless of how you did on the SAT or ACT.

Aim high. Don’t assume you won’t get into highly selective schools. You will never know if you don’t try. High-achieving first-generation students often don’t apply to schools that match their ability levels.  If you don’t know where to apply, you can get a sense of your options by attending a college fair in your school or community. Many high schools host their own college fairs, but if yours doesn’t, you may be able to find a nearby college fair online.  A Google search for “choosing a college” also yields a long list of search tools and advice articles.

All rankings are not created equal. Rankings can be a useful tool, but don’t over-rely on them. Many sources publish college rankings and they all use different methodologies. Some publishers produce multiple specialized, smaller lists, so if a school touts that it is “ranked number 3,” that may only mean number three among small colleges without graduate programs that are located in state X. Go beyond the rankings and examine the numbers of the schools you are considering. Look at the average high school GPAs and test scores of their incoming classes, but also look at statistics like: How many of the faculty members are full-time, and how many possess the terminal degree in their field? How big is the endowment, and what is the endowment-per-student amount?  How diverse is the student body? What is the student-faculty ratio? What is the alumni giving rate?

Apply to several schools. Even if you think you know where you want to go and you are 99% certain you will be accepted, you should apply to multiple schools. One school may give you a significantly better financial aid package than the others, and even if you don’t go there, you may be able to leverage that offer into a better package from your dream school (see below). Alternatively, you may change your mind about where you want to go, or the unthinkable might happen and you may be rejected from your dream school. Don’t put yourself in the position of having few options.

Don’t focus on the sticker price. A local public university may seem like the least expensive option, but private colleges often award significantly more and larger scholarships. Many scholarships are funded from endowments, which is one reason the endowment-per-student number is important. You won’t get your financial aid offer until after you are accepted. Even if a school seems like it will be too expensive, you should still apply. If you like a school, don’t take it out of the running until you have all the necessary information to make an informed decision.

Schools want students like you. Many colleges are seeking to increase the numbers of first-generation students they enroll because they see it as part of their mission, they want to expand access, and they value the diversity that students like you bring to campus. Some schools receive grants based on their numbers of first-generation students. But they may not know that you are first-generation if you don’t tell them, so consider mentioning it on your application, in your essay, or to your admission counselor.

Don’t settle for your comfort zone. College is about so much more than what you learn in the classroom. If you choose a local school because it feels comfortable to you, you’ll likely end up in classes with a number of students whose life experiences are similar to your own (and probably quite a few people who graduated from your high school). If you live at home, you’ll miss out on a lot of social activities and friendship-building opportunities. I believe I experienced much greater growth because I attended a college in a different state whose student body consisted of students from nearly every state in the nation and something like twenty countries. I was constantly exposed to views and experiences that were not like my own. Some of my best friends are the friends I made in college, and they continue to motivate and inspire me every time I interact with them. I can say without hesitation that I would not be the person I am today if I had stayed in my high school environment, lived at home, and attended one of the local schools that so many of my high school classmates attended.

Make sure your parents complete the FAFSA early. Your parents must complete and submit your FAFSA early in the calendar year if you want to get the best possible financial aid package. To complete the FAFSA, your parents will need to have their income tax information from the previous year, but they do not need to have actually filed their income tax return yet. They can submit estimated numbers, and they may have to do that, as many schools’ FAFSA deadlines are before the annual income tax deadline of April 15. Make sure your parents know how important this form is. If you do not submit the FAFSA, you probably will not be eligible to receive any need-based financial aid. If you submit it late, much of the available need-based money may already have been awarded to other students. Send in your FAFSA as early as you can.

Financial aid packages are negotiable. This is a big one that many first-generation students and their families do not understand. The financial aid package you receive from a college is an opening offer. You can ask for more money. If you got a better scholarship offer from your second choice school, tell your first choice school about it and see if they will match or exceed the higher offer. If there is something about your financial situation that is not reflected on your FAFSA (which is common, as the FAFSA relies on past data and not future projections), tell the financial aid office. One year, I received a substantial additional grant by doing this because my FAFSA, based on the previous year’s financial picture, did not account for huge medical bills my family had to pay as the result of a family member’s hospitalization. Tell your admission counselor and financial aid office about these kinds of situations; they may be willing and able to help you.

Visit before enrolling, and ideally before applying. First, the obvious: If you are going to spend four years of your life at a school, you had better visit it first to be sure you like it. A school might sound great from the brochures, but when you take a tour, you may realize right away that it is not the right place for you. On the flip side, a school might not stand out to you on paper, but when you step onto campus, you may immediately feel at home there. You need to visit to be sure you are choosing a school that is the right fit for you. Beyond that, visiting a school demonstrates your sincere interest and can help your chances of being accepted. Most colleges do not require formal interviews, but if you schedule a visit through the admissions office, you will probably be scheduled to meet with your admissions counselor. Don’t be nervous about this meeting. It is an opportunity for you to ask questions, for your admissions counselor to tell you about the school and the application process, and for the admissions counselor to get to know you. If your grades are borderline but your admission counselor likes you, she may be more willing to advocate for your acceptance.

Don’t worry too much about your major yet. If you already know what you want to do with your life, follow that dream, even if it seems impractical. Choose a school with an excellent reputation in that field. If you change your mind once you get there, you can always change majors. If, like many students, you have no idea what you want to study, that’s fine too. Take a bunch of different classes your first year and then decide what most interests you. There is a whole array of disciplines you have never encountered or considered. There are so many careers out there that you don’t even know exist. You will learn about things you never knew you never knew. You may be inspired by a professor you love to go into his or her field. You may sign up for a class on a whim and realize you really enjoy it. Keep an open mind. Most four-year colleges do not require you to declare a major until after your first year or even your second year. This is the best time of your life to explore.

I know this process of applying to and selecting a college, plus figuring out how to pay for it, can be overwhelming. Perhaps the best advice I can give is this: Believe in yourself. You’ve come this far, and your future is so bright. You can do this.

Also, you don’t have to take my word on any of the above. The internet is much more powerful now than it was fifteen years ago. There is a wealth of information and advice at your fingertips. Take advantage of it, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

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