Bronx Princess

PBS Premiere: Sept. 22, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Taking Care of Business: Tips from First-Generation College Students

Taking Care of Business

How to keep it all organized and on time

Niema made her way through high school with college always on her to-do list.

It starts in ninth grade, when you're trying to get whatever classes are required. And then by tenth grade or junior year you start building up your resumé, and you're like rushing to join activities, because, "Oh, senior year they're going to look at this, what do colleges want?" So it's always been in my mind. I was doing everything I could get my hands on, I was overactive. Part of it was just me being an outgoing person, and another part of it was me going, "Oh my grace, I have to get into college." - Niema

Bronx Princess - First in the Family Excerpted with permission from "First in the Family: Your High School Years" by Kathleen Cushman, Next Generation Press. 2005. For more information, visit the First in the Family website.

Like all students with that goal, Niema had to stay on top of things, meeting every deadline on time and figuring out dozens of unfamiliar requirements. In the following pages, she and other students who made it to college give some pointers on the admissions process--so that, in Niema's words, you can "make people with power care what's going on with your life."

Start planning as early in high school as you can.

Starting in ninth grade, you make decisions that will affect your path to college. As you go about selecting your high school courses, signing up for extracurricular activities, getting support, and doing homework, you are developing the strengths that will show up on your college applications later.

But it's not all about waiting for a college to say yes to you.You decide where to apply, and the earlier you start considering what you want, the better your chances of getting it. As you find out more about what you like and don't like, you can start to compile a list of colleges that appeal to you.

I think you should start freshman year. Things are easier when you plan ahead of time: "Okay, what does it take for me to graduate from high school, what does it take for me to get into college?" In Oakland public schools, you need only two years of math. You could very well graduate from college and not have the required courses to get into college. So you have to figure that out. Then ask, "What are some possible colleges that I can get into?"

The earlier you start, the easier it is for you to be picky, to find something that you really like. You want to have a list of what it is you're looking for in a school, so you can rule some schools out. - Niema

Bronx Princes- First in the Family checklist

Download a PDF with some helpful planning checklists from "First in the Family: Your High School Years."

You can reduce your stress in senior year if you take a look at some college applications well beforehand. Rosa discovered very late what a long time they required to fill out, and then she had to deal with panic as well as lots of paper.


I don't think I ever imagined what it took to do the application--if I had known, I would have done it way in advance. I did not know till my second semester of senior year, so I was very overwhelmed. There are many things you need to know--like that you have to pay for every application that you send. How would I know that? That's something very important. How should I write my college essay Where do I get help? I was in a rush because the deadline was coming, so I just did everything in two weeks.

In my particular school we did have a lot of help. However, students were mostly applying to state schools and community colleges, and that is fairly easy to do. But for a student who wants to do something else and has higher expectations for herself, the application process can be overwhelming. - Rosa

Make a "to-do" list and share it with your parent or guardian.

Even though your family has no experience with college admissions, it is usually a good idea to share your thinking and planning with your parent or guardian. (If you expect them to discourage you, you might ask your guidance counselor to join the conversation.) You can fill out your actual college applications on your own, but when you apply for financial aid, both you and your parents must provide information from income tax forms.These materials can take a long time to compile, so your family will need some advance warning.

Also, your family may also have strong feelings about whether you go away to school. Those conversations call for patience and communication on both sides, Niema found.

There's always going to be this tension of "You don't understand." You're like, "Well, you didn't go, so you don't know!" When you start going through the stress, like "Who's going to accept me, where am I going to apply, how am I going to get this money," you have to realize that your parents are just as stressed about the situation as you are. Maybe they're not going through the exact same thing, but you are their child, and so they're going through the anxiety.

My mom wanted me to stay in California and be close to home, and I wanted to go off and explore, and be this adventurous person: "Oh, I'm going to go where there's nobody I know, I'm going to start my life all over again!" But when it came down to it, she was just like, "Well, you're going to college and that's what matters, so go ahead and handle that." - Niema

Not all parents let go of their children so easily. At the end of her senior year, Aileen got into her first-choice college, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City.That summer, she began taking the bus from her home in New Jersey to an introductory writing class the college required.

I really did like the school, I enjoyed everything about going there. But my parents really didn't like the idea, because of the simple fact that it was in New York. The class was from six to ten at night, so at three I just went straight from work, and I got home at twelve-thirty at night on the bus by myself. That really wasn't good, they worried that something would happen to me. They said, "You're not going back, pick another college." I was seventeen, so I had to do what they told me to. I didn't have time to pick another college, so I just went to the community college, where the only thing I had to do was register for the classes. - Aileen

Aileen accepted her parents' decision, partly because she agreed that her commute was putting her at risk. However, many colleges have counselors who can help you with such practical issues, large or small. When Karen moved with her child to another town to go to college, for example, she could not get into the dorm apartment she had rented.

We were like staying here, staying there, and it was really getting to my son. So I went to the university housing office and said, "Can you help me get back into my apartment?" They made some phone calls, and sure enough, I got in the next day. - Karen

Make connections with students who went to college before you.

Niema's leadership class teacher helped connect his students who went off to college with others who were still in high school, making their plans.Those connections can make a big difference as you decide where to apply, Niema says.

People who graduated from your high school have gone off to somewhere else, and most likely there is somebody still at your school that knows them. Maybe it's a vice principal, maybe it's a counselor--people don't just graduate and forget their high school ever existed! There's somebody there who has that connection that you can pick up on. That can get you where you need to be, or get you to talk to people who will put you on the right track. - Niema

Practice writing personal essays, before you need one for your application.

Many colleges will ask you to include a personal essay in your application, so they can get a better sense of who you are and how you think. As the first in your family to go to college, you have something important to tell them in this essay. Admissions boards will take a real interest in how you came to be the person you are.The challenges you have faced, the people who inspired you, the obstacles you have overcome, and your hopes for the future are all good topics for a college essay.

I wanted to identify an experience of my own to write about, and I had to really think about what I wanted the admissions person to know about me. I wanted to talk about my experiences as an immigrant--what it was for me to come from another country and completely immerse into a new culture and a new kind of education. Reading other people's personal narratives, in books and in class, really helped. In the end, I wrote about my grandmother, who raised me in my home country while my mother came to America to work. I revised that essay at least fifteen times, and I really enjoyed thinking about my own experience -- what brought me to this country, and where I was headed. - Rosa

If you keep a journal in high school, you might draw on it for ideas to get you started when the time comes for the application essay. Writing poetry also can help free up your thoughts and emotions and give you new ideas that you can develop later in an essay. If your English teacher assigns the class to write a personal essay (or even a letter to the editor), consider it as a tryout for the application essay, and ask for feedback on how to make it better. And, like Rosa, go through as many drafts as you possibly can.

Make a plan for your college entrance tests.

Most colleges require some form of standardized tests before they accept you--but not all. Quite a number of selective colleges now ask only for your grades from high school courses and recommendations from your teachers.

To make sure you have the most options, early in eleventh grade, start asking your guidance office about prep courses for both the SAT and the ACT. (Some colleges have policies about which of these tests they want you to take.) The more you get familiar with the tests, the better you will do on them. Schedules for giving those tests are set early, so it is worth putting them on your calendar.

Late in his senior year, when Eric decided to apply to Wake Forest University, he was alarmed to discover that they required SAT tests, for which he felt totally unprepared. It took some doing on the part of his mentor, but the college eventually agreed to convert his ACT score to an SAT equivalent.

As I started getting everything together for the application, I realized that I hadn't in four years in high school been told to take an SAT. I had only been prepped for ACT. So when my mentor said, "You need to take the SAT two days from now!" I was like, "What? No prep!?" You know, the SAT is totally different from the ACT.

I was not registered in time. I had to pray that somebody would not show up for their test so I could take their place. Everybody showed up, but one girl said, "I am not taking this test, and she leaves. I'm like, "I'll take her test!" So I'm freaking out, and I'm in there, and everybody pulls out calculators. I had none of that. I took the test, but I did horribly! However, they turned my ACT score into an SAT score, and it was good enough to get in. So it was like, "Okay, you're good! Breathe!" - Eric

Get help from all sides. It's not just you -- the application process is complicated.

Don't let the paperwork discourage you from applying for college and financial aid. If you need someone to help you do it, ask -- your guidance office, your mentor or employer, even a teacher. If no one can answer your question, you can also call the college itself. They are used to answering questions, especially about the financial aid application.

Eric got help from his internship supervisors, but in the end he had to sit down with his mother and go over the family's records.

Doing the financial aid forms, that whole process was hard. I didn't know what the heck I was doing--I would sit down at the computer and just cry! I would just look at the screen like, "What are you asking me? I don't know what this means! I don't have this! Mom, as busy as you are, sit down with me, help me." And dealing with a parent who does not know how to use a computer, that was the longest process of my life--like, "Mom! What are you doing!!"

My advice is just keep a record of what you're doing in the whole process. Have Social Security numbers handy, have bills handy, keep all your receipts, keep all your bank statements if you have them. Through the whole process, I put together a binder of everything I was supposed to have, copies and dates of stuff that I turned things in, student loans, promissory notes, all that stuff. I have copies of my FAFSA, of CSS PROFILE, of the application itself. Even for stuff that I had to do online I printed it out, and I have all of it. You're going to have to send multiple copies of multiple copies of the same thing!

The hardest thing was trying to pinpoint what our income was. And I know the financial aid committee was like, "You've got to be kidding, this kid has nothing, I mean nothing!" I never had to do something like that before, having to prove our living situation. And because it's already below the poverty level, trying to explain why when they say, "This doesn't match up, how are you able to survive off of just this?" - Eric

Remember, once you are in college you must apply again for financial aid every year, in the early spring. As a high school senior, Niema got help from a volunteer at CollegeWorks, an organization that mentors students through the college and financial aid application process. By the second time around, as a first-year college student, she felt more confident doing it herself.

My mom was working, my step-dad was working, raising a family, they didn't have time to do all the paperwork for me, so senior year I worked with a program called CollegeWorks. They had a financial aid counselor who told me what forms I needed to get done, gave me the paperwork, the worksheets. Based on his advice, I filled out all my forms to get my aid for freshman year. Right now the time is coming up again for me to do financial aid, so I called my mom: "Send me your tax papers, so I can fill out all these forms, I'm handling this on my own." - Niema

Look for scholarships intended for people like you.

Many students do not know about the huge number of scholarships, usually from private donors, that are reserved for students with particular backgrounds or interests. Some may go only to students from a particular minority group, and others to students who are the first in their family to attend college. There are scholarships just for choir singers, hockey players, people who like to volunteer, gay and lesbian students, disc jockeys, and just about any other category you can think of. Start early in your senior year to search for these scholarships using Internet services that will send you emails as application deadlines approach.

Businesses also often sponsor scholarships for students in their area. Stephen tells in Chapter 3 about how various people he knew in the community wanted to help him to go to the University of Texas, located right there in town. Once he was accepted, local organizations showed their support with scholarship dollars.

We had scholarships available from the outside communities around Austin, around Texas, and national scholarships. The school set up a career counselor who would actually solicit donations from local organizations and businesses with connections to our high school community--Rotary Club, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, my church. They had scholarships given out in those businesses' names, at our graduation and award assemblies. I got a great one from the electric company, the Lower Colorado River Authority, which controls water usage along the Colorado River.

If I used those connections to my best interest, by getting community scholarships from organizations that wanted to help out young Latinos, I knew I'd be able to supplement a lot of my need. So I filled out applications. When the electric company called me in for an interview, they sent me down to this big room and people just fired questions at me. I remember one was, "What's your hardest class?" They also asked me about athletics, and what I thought about current events in the news, like the ruling against prayer at football games, because I was heavily involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. - Stephen

Starting early in your high school years, it helps to practice talking to adults about issues that you care about, so that you will feel at ease later, in interviews like the one Stephen describes. When the time comes for an interview, brainstorm with friends beforehand about questions you may expect. As you answer them, remember to talk specifically about your own experiences, challenges, and accomplishments in high school.

Keep a dialogue going with admissions and financial aid people at the college.

Your decisions about college will probably not be over when you hear back from colleges with their acceptances, rejections, or offers to put you on a waiting list. Each college decides on its own what financial aid package to offer, and you may have to balance how much you want to go to a place against how much it will cost.

Niema suggests contacting the college by letter or phone after you are accepted, if you want to present your case for an increase in their financial aid award.

If they don't give you a financial aid package that you agree with, you can appeal. You can present a letter, "Here's why that financial aid package wasn't enough for me. I really want to go to your school, and obviously you think I'm good enough because you accepted me. So these are my conditions, I need this much money to go here! Yeah, it says we make this much money, but my mom had to take out a loan for whatever, or my dad hasn't been working for the past few months because of illness," or different things like that. There are some things that applications don't ask, but they honestly factor into what you can afford. - Niema

If you are put on a waiting list for admission, it also helps to write one more letter to a college where you really want to go. In it, you should describe anything new that you have done since you first sent in your application. Tell the admissions officers again how much you want to attend that college, and why. Remind them that you will be the first in your family to go to college, and what a long and hopeful road you have traveled to this point. When the time comes to select students from the waiting list, that one last letter about yourself can only increase your chances.

Download this chapter as a PDF

Bronx Princess - Kathleen Cushman

Kathleen Cushman is the author of "First in the Family: Your High School Years" and "First in the Family: Your College Years," two short books that contain advice from first-generation college students. Her work as a writer and researcher for the nonprofit What Kids Can Do brings forward the voices of youth on matters relating to their lives and learning. Her forthcoming book for teachers and parents is "Practice: What Kids Can Tell Us About Motivation and Mastery" (Next Generation Press, 2010).

»You can get a list of such colleges at
» A personal essay you write about yourself, which is required on most college applications.
» Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a required financial aid application form administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
» College Scholarship Service Profile, a financial aid application form administered by the College Board and required by many colleges.
» See more about CollegeWorks at
» For an example,