To my fellow first-gens who just received their college acceptances:
Congratulations! Your hard work and persistence has paid off!
Bask in this moment. The work doesn’t end here, but you’ve made it this far–against all odds–and that is a huge achievement. Your family is proud of you. Your community is proud of you. I am proud of you.
As college decision day looms, you may be wondering, How do I know which college is right for me? Whereas our peers have parents, family members, or older siblings whispering in their ears about which steps to take—and not!—life isn’t as easy as a first-gen. It can be easy to feel confused, overwhelmed, and alone.
Spoiler: You’re not alone. I know this because I was in your shoes once, too. And with each passing day, I meet more first-gens who are stressing—and stressing in silence. I want you to know that we’re in this together, even if it sometimes feels like you’re in this all alone.
But knowing that you’re not alone doesn’t take away the very real barrier of not knowing what to do. That’s where this letter comes in.
If you’re like many first-gen/low-income students I’ve met, you’re probably deciding between three options:
Option #1: The college that’s closest to home / family
You might be prioritizing #1 because you have a family member to care for.
Option #2: The college that’s most familiar / most comfortable
You might be prioritizing #2 because making friends and doing well in high school wasn’t all that easy—and you’re dreading the thought of starting over or, worse, burning yourself out.
Option #3: The college that’s neither #1 nor #2 (but that could change your life!)
You might be de-prioritizing #3 because you never expected to get in anyways.
I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. Your circumstances are unique to you. But as you consider these different options (and before you rule out option #3!), here are 5 tips for first-generation students during college decision season that I want you to know:
1. College is about the people, not about the material.
It’s not about that one economics or psychology class. 95% of the material will be the same, no matter where you go. It’s about the people: the friends who will be there when life gets hard, the professors who will be there when you need a second opinion, and the alums who will be there when you want to switch careers. Surround yourself with people who will push you, inspire you, and open doors for you.
2. Every place has its good side and its ugly side.
Many competitive schools are oozing with privilege. Many competitive schools are intense. It can be especially easy to feel like an outsider. But know that there will be haters at every size and type of school. Don’t let this distract you from the fact that good people—future lifelong friends and mentors—are everywhere, too. It may not be the first or third or fifth person you meet on campus, but when you find them, and I know you will, keep them close.
3. It’s in your and the school’s best interest for you to visit campus.
If you haven’t visited campus yet, I recommend doing so before jumping to conclusions about what the school must be like. Worried you won’t find people who “get” you on campus? Search for your college + “first-gen club” or “first-gen advising” or your personal identity (e.g., “LGBTQ,” “South Asian,” “veterans,” “international student”) followed by “club” and ask the admissions office for an introduction to a student from these communities. At worst, you’ll get to experience campus with a relatable student when you arrive. And who knows: you might even meet a lifelong friend and mentor!
Can’t afford the plane or train ride? Email the admissions office to see if they can offer you a need-based travel stipend. Asking for help can feel like a sign of weakness, but it’s really a sign of confidence: it shows that you know what you want and are willing to put yourself out there to ask for it.
And besides: College admissions offices are measured on two metrics: (1) acceptance rate—the percent of applicants who are accepted (the lower the better!) and (2) yield—the percent of accepted applicants who agree to attend (the higher the better!). Now that the admissions office has made its pick—and selected you!—their job now switches from convincing you to apply but keeping you out (i.e., minimize their acceptance rate) to convincing you to say “yes” (i.e., maximize their yield). They want you to ask for help!
4. Received more financial aid or scholarship money from another school? Submit an appeal!
If you’ve received multiple college acceptances and more than one financial aid or scholarship package, you should give yourself a second pat on the back. Not only do multiple colleges want you, but they want you so badly that they’re willing to pay you money to attend their school!
If you aren’t getting as much financial aid or scholarship funding from one school as from another, try this: Email the financial aid office, share your situation, and ask if the school can match your other offers. They might say no. If they want you (and they do; otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted you!), they will also often also say yes.
And even if you haven’t received multiple scholarship or financial aid offers, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Colleges care about their yield and would rather you ask than to say “no” outright. Google for “how to appeal financial aid,” learn the strategies, and ask. You aren’t being demanding. You’re simply doing what many non-first-gens are doing—and doing quietly.
5. This is your life now.
If the college you want to attend isn’t the college that your family wants you to attend, you’re not alone. I’ve met countless first-gens (in particular women, unfortunately) with old-school parents who want them to shun college, stay home, get married, and have kids. I’ve also met countless first-gens whose parents will only support them financially if they study a certain subject at a certain school. If this is you, I hope these examples can assure you that you are not alone.
There isn't a one-size-fits-all way to approach this conversation and every dynamic will be different, but here’s something to try: Ask yourself, What’s most important in the eyes of my parents? Then ask yourself, In what ways might going with my dream school or program also give my parents what they want?
Consider the case of the student whose parents want her to stay home and get married. In this particular student’s case, it turns out that her parents simply wanted her to be happy—and jumped to the (mistaken) conclusion that getting married would make her happy. In the case of the student whose parents wanted her to study a certain subject, it turns out that her parents mistakenly thought that the only major that would make her employable was economics. When she shared how her goals align with her parents’ goals—and how they all want the same things in the end—her first choice ended up being much more palatable to her family.
Of course, not every story ends this happily. You could find yourself in a situation where nothing you do or say will satisfy your parents. At this point, it’s time to ask yourself: Which is the path of least regret—going with the school others want…or going with the school I want? This is your life. As a result, the consequences are also yours to live with.
(Special thanks to Van Ann Bui for inspiring this tip!)
Bonus! Where you end up isn’t where you need to stay.
Did this letter stress you out because you either (A) don’t have a clear top choice school or (B) didn’t get into your top choice school? If so, know this: Where you go for school can influence your future, but it doesn’t have to define your future. What’s most important isn’t your school; it’s your mindset.
I’ve met countless students who ended up at a so-called “better” school and hated the experience because all they did was keep their heads in their books all day. They didn’t meet anyone, nor did they participate in any activities. On the other hand, I’ve also met countless students who ended up at a so-called “worse” school and walked away with a big network, a close circle of friends, a fulfilling job, and a lifetime of memorable experiences—all because they sought it out. It’s not your choice of college that matters. It’s your experience of college that matters.
Oh, and by the way: there are plenty of students who transfer schools as well. In the U.S., for example, about 25% of community college (two-year college) students transfer to a four-year college, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. And about 37% of students who start at a four-year college end up transferring to a different college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. There are pros and cons to transferring, which I will post about separately. But for now, just know that it can be done—and it happens more frequently than you might think. You may decide that there’s a better fit for you, whether it be a different major, career path, even a school itself. And that’s okay. Sometimes, we don’t realize where we need to be until we know where we don’t want to be.
You’re at a time in your life when you’re asked to make big choices about your future (and that part doesn’t go away, unfortunately). It can feel like an impossible situation, especially when few of these choices have a clear-cut right or wrong answer. The only thing you can do is learn as much as you can (which you’re already doing by reading this letter!) and then, make the most informed choice possible.
I’m cheering you on!
This post was adapted from Gorick’s “To my fellow first-gen/low-income students who just received their college acceptances” LinkedIn post on April 5th, 2023. You can view the original here.