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Deciding where to go to college can be stressful for most high school students. First-generation students may feel extra pressure because they’re the first ones in their family to take this path. Arming yourself with knowledge about the college admission process and keeping your goals, talents and interests in mind will help you make the best decision for you. This two-part post will provide you with a few tips to think about during this exciting step toward your future:

Start Looking Early

Your sophomore year of high school is not too early to begin researching colleges; juniors should be actively considering where they want to go. Incoming seniors, if you haven’t spent much time thinking about these things, don’t stress. You just need to get organized and spend the time NOW so that you’re ready to submit your applications in the fall.

The great thing is that universities’ websites detail admission requirements and deadlines, majors and programs and campus activities, and even provide video tours. Taking the time to look up this information can help you narrow your choices and make note of deadlines so you don’t miss out.

Get Educated on Higher Education

Understand the Lingo

Since you are a first-generation student, the language of college might not be common in your home. This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn this lingo and know what it takes for a first-gen student to be successful in college. Ask your high school counselor, a teacher or even a friend’s parent to help. Understanding these nuances can help you in the college selection process.

Knowledge is Power

First-generation students are more likely to drop out or take longer to graduate, lack confidence and feel isolated, earn lower grades, struggle with studying and time management and fail to get involved in campus life. This may sound negative, but knowledge is power. You can take advantage of knowing these potential pitfalls by making sure that your experience is different.

What to Look for in a College

You want to find one of the many colleges with support structures in place to help you succeed. A first-generation college student should look for a college with:

  1. A lower student-faculty ratio. Carefully interpret this ratio; it says a lot about a school. The lower the ratio, the more likely professors will be able to give personal attention, while a ratio over 20-1 is often a sign of large class sizes. A first-gen student can usually find more individualized support in a smaller class, so consider this ratio if having more personal support is important to you. You can usually find this number on the “About” or “Facts” page of a university website.
  2. Stellar academic support or student success services. Does the college you’re looking at have tutoring? A writing center? A first-year transition course? Peer mentoring? Required faculty office hours? If you need academic support (and, according to research, you might) it should be readily available to you.
  3. A vibrant campus community. Successful first-gen students get involved in extracurricular activities and become engaged in the campus community. You can usually find this information on a school’s website, under headings like “Student Life,” “Division of Student Affairs” or a similar tab. Research the organizations and activities available to make sure there’s something that suits your interests. Also, consider if internship and study abroad opportunities are readily available and promoted.
  4. Resources specifically for first-generation students. Many colleges have resources that are designed to help first-gen students thrive, such as special courses, living-learning communities, programs and student organizations. Look on the websites of the schools you’re considering or ask the college representatives who visit your high school or come to the local college fair night how their campus supports first-gen students.
  5. A solid career services office. Another hurdle you will have to overcome during college is landing a job or getting into a graduate program. Many first-generation students must support their families, so a good job after college is of utmost importance. Look into each school’s career services and seek information about job placement rate, internship opportunities, job fairs and resume and interviewing preparation programs. Other points to consider are the involvement of  the alumni network, and how can you take advantage of mentoring opportunities while on campus.

Remember, information is power. So get started by looking at the websites of a few colleges or universities to begin your search. In the second part of this post, we’ll discuss finding the right fit and tackling affordability.