We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Being the First: Navigating the College Application Process as a First-Generation Student

Being a first-generation student presents a multitude of challenges with the college admissions process, especially when one is competing with students who may have family members already well-established in colleges across America.
For first generation students, the college application process can appear as a seemingly insurmountable task. Though it may be difficult, there are a plethora of resources available to assist you. (Photo Credit: Baim Hanif / Unsplash)

It’s intimidating to think about the sheer amount of weight of your family’s dreams placed upon your shoulders. The college process is an intimidating process on its own, and this stress can be exacerbated if you are the first in your family to achieve these goals. To be a first-generation student is to be the first in the family to complete college. There are a variety of experiences that fall under the large umbrella of this aspect of identity. Some first-generation students might have had parents who started college but did not complete it, while others had parents who never went to college at all.

As a first-generation student myself, I was never allowed to forget this part of my background, nor the expectations that came with it. Even before I understood the term “first-generation,” the adults in my life kept reminding me that I needed to complete my education and academically surpass them all. My mother and both sets of my grandparents never made it past high school, and my father never completed college in his home country. At school, my classmates and I sat through speeches about how the system was designed against students like us, and we needed to work twice as hard as everyone else to achieve our dreams and fulfill our families’ hopes. Most of us were also first generation, so felt pressure both at school and at home to succeed. 

Many students nationwide have gone through the college application process with little guidance, unable to rely on their parents, as well as unable to access resources vital to the admissions process. Statistically, first-generation students tend to come from lower-income families. Socioeconomic status and oftentimes education level affect the circumstances in which an individual grows up. The type of neighborhood they live in, the type of education they receive growing up, and the resources accessible to them and others within their community are constantly under the influence of factors out of that person’s control. For example, lower income neighborhoods cannot afford to distribute educational resources, such as tutoring and test-prep, to their students as much as wealthier neighborhoods can. They generally do not have a wide assortment of extracurricular activities, advanced courses, or college application guidance available, which makes accessing information and opportunity quite difficult. 

There’s also the lack of family support for first generation students when beginning to apply to colleges. This isn’t because families don’t want to help, but generally due to the fact that they don’t have the means to help their children as much as they might like. For first generation students preparing to apply to colleges, many parents don’t know how the process works. Even if parents attended college in another country, the college process there could greatly differ from what the United States requires. Numerous first-generation students start their applications without this resource available. 

Fortunately, several organizations such as Mt. Sinai’s First Generation Mentorship Program  and student-led groups such as First Gen Support have provided themselves as a resource for current first-generation students struggling to make the transition into college application season. 

I spent my junior year as a mentee under the guidance of a Mt. Sinai med student. We scheduled zoom meetings together and attended the program’s small get-together in Central Park. She helped me organize my tasks and communicated with me every step of the way. Even though I’m no longer a part of the program, I still ask her questions and discuss my college application progress with her. Through partnerships between college students and virtual webinars explaining the admissions process, financial aid, and much more, students can find solace in the fact that there is a vast amount of support available to them. The key thing to remember is that there are a multitude of people out there willing to help, so the first thing a first generation student should do is try to find organizations that pair students with mentors and host events that explain the college application process. 

Many first-generation students tend to enroll in less selective colleges, which are usually much cheaper and more accessible to attend than the universities most students dream of getting into. Of course, this isn’t inherently a bad thing.  A myriad of students have been able to obtain a good education at their community colleges and have gone on to obtain a job after graduation, achieving a goal that’s followed them for most of their lives. However, the experience of a first-generation student who feels barred from top institutions due to a lack of representation and accessibility can be quite isolating and stressful. Not having enough people to relate and connect with this experience can be taxing on a first-generation student’s mental health as they continuously seek for someone to talk to. Financial burdens, imposter syndrome, family responsibilities, and more lay heavy on their minds while trying to juggle a full-time academic life. 

First-generation students, on top of being far likelier to be economically disadvantaged, also tend to come from marginalized communities. This is accompanied by additional at-home responsibilities. This could be taking care of a younger sibling, caring for a sick parent, translating documents for your family, taking care of their e-mails, phone calls, and other forms of correspondence. Luckily, the Common App does allow you to add these family responsibilities and jobs in the activities section. Including this in your activities section would explain any gaps between your other activities, and demonstrates that you have had to take charge in your home life, in addition to your academic life. 

Schools may not offer a variety of extracurricular activities for their students to partake in, or personal circumstances may hinder a student from taking advantage of any clubs available. However, there are alternatives to in-school activities that you may want to consider. 

When I was no longer able to attend club meetings after school, I took to searching through Google and social media for any remote opportunities I might be able to partake in, which is where I found a variety of student-led organizations. I joined two, The Cleverly Creatives and The Self Journey, and from them I was exposed to a lot of other student-led organizations for a plethora of topics. There are student-led organizations for computer science, medicine, sustainability, and much more. In my experience, the students in leadership are very understanding of any changes happening in their team members’ lives. It’s a great place to get started with participating in activities in relation to your passions and interests. 

Another major hurdle may be ensuring your financial aid. Marina Tiligadas ’23 said, “I didn’t have anyone to tell me that affording college wasn’t as black and white as I thought. Applying for scholarships was hard, and so was asking financial aid offices for more money. I think if I had someone to guide me more, I would have had an easier time.” 

The two main forms for financial aid are the CSS Profile and the FAFSA. Since the FAFSA underwent a multitude of changes this year, it did not open until December 2023, but it will return to its regular October opening in 2024. The CSS profile is on the College Board website, and is very particular about the financial information it requires from you and your family. For both of the forms, be sure to have access to your parent or guardian’s taxes beforehand and check which of the colleges you’re applying to require it. 

In regards to the other required application materials, the personal essay stumps a lot of people. There are lists upon lists of topics to avoid, but there is a way to take something the admissions office expects others to write about into something unique to you. If you’re inclined to write about a highly valued aspect of your identity, such as, for example, being a first-generation student, take a piece of that experience that is specific to you. The personal statement is meant to be a narrative of what you’ve been through and how you’ve evolved as a person. You should take something broad to get a general idea of what you may want to write about and zoom into the central story of how this theme fits into your own life. You can write about a story of finding guidance in a world where you lacked it, the narrative of how you’ve learned to balance your school life with at-home pressures, or anything else that was a significant part of your personal growth. Whatever it may be, remember that you are writing to create the best representation of yourself as possible, so take a moment to step back and choose something you think accomplishes that goal best. 

Something quite specific to first generation students of immigrant backgrounds is the idea of staying close to family all the time, and this tends to arise during the college decision process. Many first-generation students are expected to pick some place close by, with colleges even a few hours away deemed to be too far. The concept of leaving family can be difficult, especially if this is accompanied by responsibilities that the family has grown to depend on. 

There’s also the issue of leaving a crucial connection to your cultural background. Although many high schools and colleges have cultural clubs, it’s usually not very specific to a group’s identity, and is mostly quite broad. I’m Latina, and I can of course connect with other Latinos despite what Latin country their family is from, but there will still be differences between the way in which I express my cultural heritage to the way someone else would. We’re grouped together under a wide umbrella for our ethnic identity, but we can’t find too many similarities the more specific we get, so most individuals turn to their families. Moving away may, for some, mean leaving that crucial piece of themselves behind and have to seek it elsewhere. 

All of the things I’ve described so far cause a lot of stress for students, especially those who don’t have many resources at their disposal. Finding even small pieces of guidance can make a difference in how one approaches the college application process, and at the very least, we can find comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone in this struggle. 

This was just an overview of a few pieces of the process, and is by no means a comprehensive guide on how to approach it. Whether you are first-generation or any type of student trying to navigate this under immense pressure, know that there is an innumerable amount of people out there waiting to help you – they just need to be found. I wish everyone the best of luck during this time of college applications, and may it all turn out the way you wish it to. 

Fortunately, several organizations such as Mt. Sinai’s First Generation Mentorship Program  and student-led groups such as First Gen Support have provided themselves as a resource for current first-generation students struggling to make the transition into college application season. 

About the Contributor
Ruby Moran, Staff Reporter
Ruby Moran is a Copy Chief for ‘The Science Survey.’ She believes that journalistic writing is essential for educating the public on crucial issues affecting all types of communities around the world. She enjoys a multitude of creative hobbies such as prose writing and creating visual artwork, as well volunteering in her free time. Ruby plans on continuing her volunteer work to advocate for environmental issues and marginalized voices in creative fields. In college, she is interested in studying business administration. She hopes for a future in which she continues to pursue what she loves while creating positive change for future generations.