This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
If you were anything like me, your parents stopped helping you with math homework as soon as you made it to algebra. So how does one find help with something their parents don’t know much about? How does one go about finding a college or university, how does one apply and eventually choose where to go for the next four years? I didn’t know anything, but I applied and took some risks. Overall, I am very happy with the result.
You’ve made the right decision by seeking to go to college, and I’m sure that a lot of your teachers and guidance counselors have been telling you to go to CollegeBoard and make a list of schools you’re going to apply to. All of that is good advice, but how do you narrow down your options from all the schools in the country to a select few that you want to go to? Based on my college-seeking experience, I have a few tips to help guide you through the long process.
1. Numbers matter … Somewhat.
CollegeBoard is a great resource as it allows you to view statistics on the average admitted student at a school, but this should in no way discourage you from applying. You are not just a GPA and SAT/ACT score. In your application, you need to convey your passion and dedication for something, something that you want to achieve in life and how that school in particular can help you reach that goal. How do you do that? Essays may be long and tedious, but they’re the only other view the college has when it makes a decision about you.
2. Numbers ($) matter again, somewhat.
My parents’ annual income is around $34,000 and I attend a school that costs around $58,000. One thing that my parents always asked me about was the cost. Regardless of where you want to go, the lesson here is to forget about the cost of college at this stage of the game: you are choosing schools that have what you want. Don’t worry if the price tag is exuberant. Financial aid, scholarships, grants and work study have helped me tremendously, so much so that I get a check at the beginning of every semester for my personal expenses from my university. Do not be afraid to contact financial aid offices at the schools you’re considering, and ask them important questions about the bottom line; sometimes they can make quick and rough estimates for you.
Once the application stage has ended, the scholarship application stage begins. Apply to everything you can: in essence, you can be paid to sit and write about your life!
3. Dream, Dream Big!
Ask for advice, but let NO ONE shut down your hopes. My high school’s goal was not to get me into the college I wanted to get into; its goal was to get me out of there with a diploma in four years. Going to college, let alone an elite university, was additional. I applied to state schools, and was accepted into every one, including Johns Hopkins. When decision time came, I was advised to not attend Hopkins, because It was notoriously difficult and cutthroat, and no one from my high school had ever graduated from it. But, there is always a first time for everything.
4. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Johns Hopkins was my reach school, the last school I applied to as my free common applications allowed. During my junior year, I had absolutely no interest in Johns Hopkins. Today, I’m a semester away from graduating from this school with a degree in biophysics. I love this school! Yes, it’s hard; yes, I’ve struggled; but the people I’ve met, the research I’ve done and the places I’ve traveled, all thanks to this university, make it worth it. But, five years ago, I had no interest in coming here. This is why I want everyone to do their research, do it well and do it early, so that all of the schools that you apply and get accepted to will make you happy. It’s going to be a long journey, but it’s one that will steer your life for the next four years, and possibly the rest of your life.
5. Start early.
Plan ahead and start early. Do not be afraid to call the admissions office to ask them whatever you want. This way, when they read your application, they will know who has been calling them incessantly, and will credit that extra initiative to your benefit. If you can visit, do so; if you can’t, connect with the school on social media, see what the students are saying about the school, learn about the faculty, look at the the research and explore the school’s sports, art and music programs (and any other aspects that interest you) to see if the school offers what you really want. Only once you’re sure, apply.
6. Choose wisely, looking for a school that fits you.
Whether you want to live at home or want to get as far away as you can, be sure to choose a location that is a good fit for you. Find out if the school is in a rural location or in a city, how the school interacts with the community around it, where you can get groceries, where the nearest Wal-Mart is, where the nearest airport is if you need it and how you can get there from the university. Learn what the weather is like during the months you’re going to live there. You are moving from your childhood home to another residence, so do your research!
In conclusion, follow what your heart wants. Remember that you are looking for a school that fits you, not if you fit the school. Every school is different, and no school is a good fit for everyone. Choose wisely based on what you want to do. If you want any personal advice, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.