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How to Navigate the College Process as a First-Generation Student


Posted August 15, 2018 by Rudy Favard - Assistant Director of Diversity Recruitment - Lehigh University

As a first-generation college graduate, I understand the added pressure students in the same situation may feel when navigating the college admissions process. A student who identifies as first-generation often comes from families who don’t have a university or college-going tradition. First-generation students are expected to deal with typical college application issues like where to apply, what to write in the admissions essay, and what major to declare like every other incoming student. Unfortunately, first-generation students may receive little assistance from family members at home who didn’t attend college themselves and aren’t familiar with the experience.

There are already added challenges to being the first in your family or even community to attend college, and if you also come from a lower-income family, speak a primary language other than English, or haven’t had a lot of encounters with your high school counselor, it could be easy to lose interest and feel like college isn’t for you.

A dear friend of mine, Evan Pittman, always told me in difficult times, “don’t go through it, but grow through it!” The college process isn’t just about the school you decide to attend . Through the application process, you gain skills that will help you become a professional and turn your backpack into a briefcase.

1. Ask for Help

First-generation students overcome great odds to position themselves to be admissible for college. Your grit and tenacity are appreciated in the admissions process, but know that your college search is not another burden you must carry yourself. You have a representative who can work with you at each different institution you’re investigating. This is why we’re called admissions counselors!

Building relationships with counselors can expose you to opportunities you may not know to look for, like fee waivers or free fly-in programs or overnight experiences where you can immerse yourself in the campus atmosphere.

When it comes to your college process, there are no foolish questions— just ask! Although different institutions handle their admissions decisions differently, the tips, tricks, and answers from each school’s counselors can put you in the best position to succeed, and that information is just an email or phone call away.

You can find admissions counselors by looking at the university website, calling the admissions office, or by talking to representatives who visit your school.

2. Demonstrate Interest

Asking for help is a great first step to demonstrating interest, and engaging with admissions counselors at each institution could influence the decision you receive at some universities.

Often admissions counselors are tracking potential student’s demonstrated interest in the school. The more interested a student, the greater the possibility they will eventually enroll. Showing your interest in learning more about the institution can help you. This is easier than it sounds, and can range from visiting campus to opening an email and clicking a link to learn more.

If you can’t visit a campus physically due to finances or home responsibilities, taking a virtual tour and crafting an email stating how interested you are and why you can’t visit could work in your favor. Admissions counselors want to help you, and do not want your circumstances to be held against you.

Don’t have internet at home or don’t own a smart phone? Use extra time in school or visit your public library to send an email and explain your circumstances to your admissions representatives – your initiative it could go a long way.

3. Know Yourself

Don’t worry; this doesn’t mean you need to know your exact major and career aspirations at age 17! Take the time to make a list of the things you like and don’t like so you can build a college “wish-list” that is tailored to you. For example, some students thrive on escaping what they’ve known for 17 years and immersing themselves in a completely different environment. Think new city or country , different weather, other cultures. Some students may have family responsibilities that require them to build a list of schools closer to home. Regardless of your circumstances, there are high-quality schools for you everywhere.

Your admissions counselor can’t tell you what you like, but we can answer questions on those topics. Think about sports, clubs, and other things you may want to experience on campus, then ask away. The world is yours – no matter your background, there is a school where you can get a great education and make great memories, too.


Rudy Favard HeadshotRudy Favard is the Assistant Director of Diversity Recruitment at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA.

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