Going first: College applications can bring challenges

Harry McGuinness

January 17, 2019

Toby Wright, an AVID teacher and college prep facilitator at Capital High School, said 99 percent of the college applicants he helps are so-called first-generation students.

“I have noticed more first-generation students applying, simply because we have made a concerted effort at Capital High to ensure these students apply,” Wright said. The school, he said, has a full-time employee whose “only job is to make sure students are being exposed to and fulfilling the tasks necessary to apply to college.”

According to experts, first-generation college students could have an advantage when it comes to applying to selective schools.

However, these first-generation college students can face a number of hurdles, too. Wright said students often have to combat doubts within their families. Students say the technical aspects of applying to school can be rough.

And, to complicate matters, the term “first generation” can have varying definitions from institution to institution, adding an additional level of confusion for some college applicants hoping to seek financial aid.

Kimberly Jones, the public policy and communications director for the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nationally funded nonprofit organization dedicated to providing equal access and support for low-income, disabled and first-generation students, said the definition of a first-generation student depends on how much schooling the applicant’s parents had.

However, Jones said, “every college, it seems, kind of has its own definition.”

“Some people look at it as [a parent having] no college whatsoever; other people look at it as anything less than a bachelor’s degree, ” she said. “Some students feel that ‘I’m not first generation because my brother or sister went to college,’ even though they are in the same generation, so it varies.”

Larry Clendenin, a college adviser for Santa Fe High School with past experience as the director of admissions for Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz., College of the Atlantic in Maine and St. John’s College in Santa Fe, said he has worked frequently with first-generation students in New Mexico. Clendenin said some college applicants he worked with interpreted “first generation” as a term indicating they were the first to go to a private school “and the family was taking a risk.”

“I think all we had to do was, all we could do, was be sensitive to the situation and get to know the student and make sure that they really knew what they were getting in to, and that they could do it,” Clendenin said. “If not, we had to be honest with them and say: ‘Maybe do a little bit of work at another college before you come here.’”

Figuring out what “first generation” means to the school they’re going to isn’t the only issue these students face in the admissions process.

Pablo García, a senior at Santa Fe High School and a first-generation college applicant, said one of his biggest issues was learning how to round out his college application with material besides academics.

“My parents thought that only good grades mattered, but in fact it is good grades but it’s also along with other things like extracurriculars,” García said. “My parents didn’t really know that, so my parents were just like, ‘Just get good grades,’ but they never told me, ‘You should try out this sport.’ It was once I applied to this program called Breakthrough, that is when they [Breakthrough staff] were actually like, ‘Oh yeah, good grades matter, but you should also try focusing yourself and your time not only in academics but other stuff as well.’ ”

García also struggled with creative writing, he said.

“I have all these great stories about, ‘Oh my family went through that, or my father did so and so,’ ” he said. “But in reality, I didn’t know how to express that. I didn’t have the skills to show what I know and what I have gone through.”

Wright emphasized similar concerns for first-generation students.

“First-generation students need to make their wishes clear to their families early and often,” Wright said. “They need to begin their college journey in the ninth grade, not senior year. They need to lay the groundwork and expectations so their parents can learn what it takes to be supportive. Our first-gen families don’t always understand how to help their student be successful and academically competitive.”

Wright said parents shouldn’t ask a student who wants to go to college to miss school for family things or extensive travel. He also suggested that first-generation students build their résumés outside of the classroom by engaging with their communities or taking on leadership roles.

Even with these barriers in place, colleges want to reach these first-generation applicants, experts say.

Brian Taylor, managing director at the college admissions preparation firm Ivy Coach, said colleges prefer first-generation students over even legacy students, the relatives of past alumni, that are typically considered highly sought-after in the college-recruitment process.

“Highly selective colleges love when student’s parents and grandparents didn’t go to college,” Taylor said. “These are students who admissions officers can easily get behind and root for.”