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A First Generation Guide to Applying to College
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Below, find helpful tips and hints to the college application process.  If there is further information you are seeking not covered here, feel free to reach out to and suggest we add further information.

1. Deciding Which Schools To Apply To 
2. What is the Common Application?
3. Different ways to apply to College:  Regular Decision (RD), Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA)
4. College Interviews
5. Standardized Testing
6. Financial Aid & Scholarships
7. Studying Abroad

Since immediate members of your family may not have much advice or knowledge, make sure you have an adult that can be used as a resource during this time. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your alma mater for help as well; that’s what they’re there for.

Deciding Which Schools To Apply To

Your main focus should be on finding a school that is the right fit for you and not on what others or outside sources are telling you. City Year’s partner schools offer benefits to alumni, so be sure to look into it. If possible, attend college fairs hosted by colleges and other organizations to talk to admissions representatives from each college and get a sense of which colleges are a good fit and which are not. Visit colleges to get a sense of the community and culture. Engage the current students in conversation and ask them about their experience at that particular college. They are a valuable resource and often understand what you’re looking for as they are a student as well.

·         Consider applying to safety, target and reach schools. “Safety” schools are schools you are certain to get into; “target” school are schools that you have a better than average chance to get into and “reach” schools are schools that’ll be difficult to gain admission to. You only get to apply once as a brand new undergraduate, so make the best of it and take chances.

  • Some questions to ask yourself are:
    • Is location important to you? Do you want to be in a rural neighborhood or an urban city? Do you want to be close to home or far away? Is weather an issue?
    • What type of university or college are you interested in? A smaller school? A large school? Do you want a school with a big sports scene or a liberal arts school?
    • What is your situation? Are you first-generation? Are you low-income?

You should take everything into account as you weigh your options; these are just a few questions to get you started. It is ultimately up to you to decide which the most important factors in making your decision are.

  • Public or private?
    • Public schools receive money from federal, state and local dollars which keeps in-state tuition low. In order to qualify for the low tuition, you must provide proof that your primary residence is in the state in which the school is located. State schools tend to have a simpler application process, requiring fewer recommendations and most do not require SAT subject tests.
    • Private schools have higher tuition prices. However, these schools generally have the capacity to offer financial packages that often rival or beat that of state schools. Many private colleges require more standardized testing (SAT subject tests), essays and recommendations.
  • Community College may be something you want to consider, depending on your circumstances.
    • If you choose to attend a community college, you will receive an Associate’s Degree as opposed to a Bachelor’s Degree
    • They are much less expensive in comparison. For economic reasons, you may decide to spend your first two years at a community college and then transfer to a traditional four-year college for the last two years.

If you think that community college is the right choice for you, be sure to research and find out if your community college has a co-operative relationship with a four-year school. Make sure the courses you have taken or will take qualify to be transferred.

What is the Common Application?

The Common Application ( is an online application system that allows you to apply to multiple schools using one collective application. The common application consists of 6 sections: Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities and Writing. In addition, some schools have supplements that may include more questions, short answers, essays and additional information.

  • Writing the Essay
    • Generally, the writing section consists of various writing prompts that you may choose to write about. The essay is meant to show the admissions counselor who you are and what you want to get out of life. A good essay can make you and your application stand out from every one else’s. Brainstorm events or lessons you have learned that have been memorable and have impacted your life. Once you have figured out what you want to write about, make sure it fits into one of the essay prompts. Create an outline and flesh out your topic. Multiple different outlines will help you see how you want to approach writing your essay. Have questions that you want to answer in your essay. Now write the essay, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Once you’ve written it, revise it. Think of what you wanted to express in your essay and if you’ve achieved those goals. Having your essay read by multiple people will only benefit you. By attacking a larger population, you will be able to see where your essay resonates and where it does not. Talk to the people who have read your essay and see where they thought you were lacking and where your point really came across. Chances are if you can connect with these people, the message translated through your essay will most likely connect to the college admissions counselor as well.
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Do not simply choose a teacher whose class you excelled in. The best recommendations come from people who can speak about you academically and personally. These will give the admissions counselor insight as to who you are. If you choose a person that does not know you well, they will only be able to talk about how well you do in school and not about what your values are or who you are, a part from being a student.

Different ways to apply to College:  Regular Decision (RD), Early Decision (ED), Early Action (EA)

If you are considering applying ED or EA make sure you do your research as to what the conditions and terms are. Keep in mind that offers can be rescinded if a school finds out you violated their policy.

Regular Decision is the most common form of applying to college. Deadlines vary from school to school so be sure to keep on top of them. RD doesn’t have restrictions similar to ED or EA, it is fairly simple. Most schools allow you to apply RD to other schools under the condition that you will withdraw the applications if you get accepted through ED or any other terms they put in their policy. It is important to research and get to know a school’s policy before applying.

Early Decision is a BINDING form of application. You may only apply to one school ED and that school is usually your first choice. If accepted you are legally bound to withdraw all other applications and matriculate to the school. There are some exceptions but these are very few and far in between. You should only apply ED if you are absolutely confident you want to attend the school and are financially secure. If you aren’t financially secure, it may not be a good idea to apply ED because the financial aid package is not guaranteed.

Accepted: You have gained admission, withdraw all other applications and

Deferred: You have not been admitted but your application has automatically been pushed to the RD round where you will be considered for admission once again. If you are accepted through RD selection, the ED binding policy is no longer in affect and you may choose where to matriculate freely.

Denied: The school has decided that you will not be accepted for the incoming class. In this situation, you may not reapply to the school through any other means for that application cycle.

Early Action is a NON-BINDING form of application. If you are accepted, you may wait until RD decisions have been announced before deciding on where you will matriculate. EA is a good option for those who have a strong first choice but do not want to be locked into a binding policy. There is no financial risk as it is non-binding. EA falls under two broad categories:

  • Unrestricted Early Action (UEA)
  • If you apply UEA to a school, you may apply UEA to other schools as long as they also accept UEA applications. The conditions vary from school to school so be sure to research. Some schools don’t allow you to apply EA or ED to any other schools so be careful when planning your course of action.
  •  Single Choice Early Action (SCEA)
  • You may only apply to one school SCEA. If you apply SCEA you may not apply to any other school under ED or EA.

Accepted: You have a college to choose from! If you are still not sure whether or not you want to attend this college, keep on applying to other colleges. Remember, EA is NON-BINDING.

Deferred: You have not been admitted but your application has automatically been pushed to the RD round where you will be considered for admission once again.

Denied: The school has decided that you will not be accepted for the incoming class. In this situation, you may not reapply to the school through any other means for that application cycle.

College Interviews

When alumni or admissions officers reach out to you and request an interview, be sure to always accept. An interview is a great way for you to meet someone who represents the college and has an abundance of knowledge. Ask questions and show them who you are and that you’re curious. Become an expert on the school, it does not bode well to ask questions that are easily found online. Ask yourself, what is it about this college that makes me want to attend. You will most likely be asked why you’ve chosen to apply there. With all interviews, make sure you have proper body language and do not fidget. Your attire should be neat but casual, it is not a professional interview but it is not a time for you to be wearing sweatpants either. After the interview, be sure to send a thank you letter. Don’t make it generic; be sure to personalize it with some things you thought stood out during your conversation. Keep it short and sweet, it isn’t a college essay, it is simply a letter of appreciation.

Standardized Testing

The SATs and ACTs are tools used by college admissions counselors to quantitatively gauge the college readiness of applicants planning on continuing their education after high school. You can register for the SATs at and the ACTs at Most schools accept both the SATs and ACTs, be sure to check which schools accept each exam. Both tests are standardized means of testing your knowledge, some people do well on the SATs, some people do well on ACTs. It is up to how you test and which exam caters best to you. The best way to prepare for standardized testing is to get used to taking the exam and understanding the format. Be sure to time yourself so you can come up with the best strategies to finish the test. The collegeboard website has a lot of resources that you can use to your advantage. There are search engines for colleges, majors and future career paths along with SAT practice questions that will help you prepare for the test and get used to the format.

Financial Aid & Scholarships

  • What is the FAFSA?
  • The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. A completed FAFSA is required in order to receive financial assistance from the federal government, schools and other private scholarships. The application is available at, DO NOT go to any other website!! These websites are a scam. You should NEVER have to pay to complete the FAFSA, it is completely free! The information you provide will be used by the government and school to determine your financial aid package. The FAFSA is available to be completed starting January 1st of every year.

What do you need to complete the FAFSA?

To complete the FAFSA, the following information is needed:

1.       Your birth date and parents birth date

2.       A valid email address for both you and your parents

3.       Your home address

4.       Your driver’s license, if you have one

5.       Your Social Security Number

  • If you are not a U.S. citizen, have your Alien Registration Number or permanent residence card available.

6.       Your parents’ most recent tax return (1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, etc.)

  • If applicable, your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned

7.       Bank statements, records of investments and records of untaxed income, if applicable

8.       The federal school codes of the schools to which you’re applying

  • Available on the FAFSA website

9.       A PIN for you and your parents.

  • A PIN acts as the electronic signature on the FAFSA.
  • The PIN will remain the same, so be sure to keep it in a safe place

While completing the FAFSA, there are step by step instructions next to the questions. If necessary you can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4Fed-AID (1-800-433-3243) or email them at for additional assistance.

  • What is the difference between grants, loans and scholarships?
  • Grants and scholarships are “free money”; essentially money that is not paid back. Grants are primarily needs-based and reserved for students who demonstrate the greatest financial need. Scholarships can be need-based, merit-based or based on an individualized talent. They are generally awarded by your college or university, but there are many outside scholarships available as well.
  • There are two major types of loans: government loans and bank/private loans. Government loans are either subsidized or unsubsidized. The most common federal loans are the Stafford Loans that are subsidized or unsubsidized. Subsidized Stafford Loans are only available to low-income families. A subsidized Stafford loan does not need to be paid back until you have graduated from college. In addition, interest is not accrued until 6 months after graduation. Unsubsidized loans are awarded regardless of family income. An unsubsidized Stafford Loan accrues interest once it is initiated but payment can be deferred until after graduation. Government Loans are made available to parents as well and the terms may be more favorable than their bank loans. Bank loans vary in interest rates and repayment plans. It is good to look around and be sure you understand what the conditions are before accepting a loan. It is important to stay on top of loan repayments, if you have any problems, immediately contact your lender.

Communities often have scholarship opportunities, be sure to ask and check around for them. Universities and colleges have scholarships specific to their school. These scholarships often have an earlier deadline then the regular college admission application. Make sure you are aware of when applications are due and whether or not you meet the eligibility. 

If you receive a financial aid package that does not reflect your situation, be sure to talk to the school’s financial aid office and see if they’re willing to reevaluate it. If you have a financial aid package that is better from another school, bring it to the meeting and show them. Often times, schools will change the financial package if theirs is significantly not proportionate to the other schools.

There are scholarships specifically dedicated to increasing the number of first-generation, low-income, high-achieving students, allowing them to be financially unburdened through their undergraduate journey.

  • The Gates Millennium Scholars Program ( is dedicated to providing outstanding African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Island American and Hispanic American students with the opportunity to gain an undergraduate education in any discipline.
  • The Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship ( is an achievement-based scholarship awarded to graduating high school students. These students are recognized for their capacity to lead and serve, and their commitment to making an impact on their schools and communities.
  • The Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) U.S. Scholarship ( offers scholarships to students in financial need who have demonstrated academic achievement, leadership capabilities and community involvement.
  • The Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) ( is dedicated to providing scholarships for students with Asian & Pacific Islander heritage to access, complete and succeed in their post-secondary education.
  • The Dells Scholars Program ( places emphasis on a student’s determination to succeed rather than their academic prowess and test scores. The program focuses on rewarding low-income, highly-motivated students who are much more than their numbers indicate. Students must demonstrate Grit, Potential and Ambition in their pursuit of an undergraduate education.

There are many more scholarships available online. Use search engines to research and learn about scholarships that best fit your needs and circumstances. Search engines for scholarships include: Fastweb (, Collegeboard (, ( and Zinch (

Studying Abroad

Study Abroad Financial Information

If there are financial constraints preventing you from studying abroad, do not worry. Your school may transfer financial aid to include study abroad, be sure to check with your school’s Office of Financial Aid to see what their policies are. Make sure to consult your study abroad advisor at school before applying to an outside study abroad program, there may be restrictions you are unaware of. There are also many scholarships out there that are dedicated to giving students the opportunity to study abroad.

  • The Critical Language Scholarship ( is a fully-funded government overseas language and cultural immersion summer program for American undergraduates and graduate students. This scholarship is open to students from all disciplines. The13 languages offered are: Azerbaijani, Bangla, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.
  • The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship ( aims to provide support for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in study abroad including those with high financial need, community college students, students in underrepresented field, students with diverse ethnic backgrounds and students with disabilities. The Gilman Scholarship encourages its applicants to purse study abroad in non-traditional destinations.
  • The Boren Awards for International Study ( for undergraduates provides up to $20,000 for students to study abroad in areas that are critical to U.S. interests and are traditionally underrepresented in study abroad. The Boren Scholarships are funded by the National Security Education Program which focuses on areas in the world that have been deemed critical to U.S. national security.
  • The Fund for Education Abroad ( is intended to support students who are planning to participate in a rigorous study abroad program. There are dedicated scholarships available on the website that has specific requirements.

There are also many study abroad programs available. Some are based on specific fields of study and others contain a wide range of possibilities. If you are a pre-medical student, John Hopkins University ( has compiled a list of great pre-medical based study abroad programs. Top study abroad providers include: The Education Abroad Network (, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad ( and many more.