With more than 2,800 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, finding the one that is right for you can feel overwhelming.
The task can be particularly hard for high school students who are the first in their families to attend college - commonly referred to as first-generation students.
In my experience as a professor and researcher focused on how to improve the transition from high school to college, I have found that there is a significant "college knowledge gap" between first-generation college students and students whose parents went to college.
Given the ever-rising costs of a college education, the stakes of finding the right college are high.
With that in mind, here are four tips that can help first-generation college students not only get into the college of their choice, but also secure scholarship money to help pay for it.
1. Look up how students do after they graduate
If you want to see your odds of getting into a particular school, how much it will cost or what percentage of students graduate from the school each year, the federal government has provided several websites to do that.
The College Scorecard provides information about how much student loan debt and what kind of salary you can expect after graduation. This information can be looked up by particular majors.
If you see that a low percentage of students from a particular school even graduate, you may want to ask an admissions representative at the school if they have updated information because the data in the federal websites is based on students who started as freshmen at the college seven to nine years ago. You may also want to consider a different school. Similarly, you may want to explore other colleges if you see that graduates from a particular school have bigger debt loads or lower salaries than most other graduates.
2. Do well in challenging high school classes
The single best thing you can do to increase your chances of getting into your dream college is to take the most challenging classes available at your high school, and to do as well as possible in those classes.
This will also help you get scholarship money, as many colleges award merit-based scholarships based at least in part on your high school GPA. Doing well in your classes is more important than admission test scores. According to an annual survey of college admissions directors, GPA has been more important than SAT or ACT test scores since long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Show your interest
In addition to reviewing your transcript, colleges also consider various nonacademic factors. Of course, this includes things like extracurricular activities and volunteer experience. But more than 4 out of 5 colleges also look at something called "demonstrated interest."
Perhaps the strongest way to demonstrate interest in a college is by applying early decision to your first-choice college. When you apply early decision, you are committing to attend the college if you are accepted. The only ethical way to not accept an early decision offer is if attending the college is not affordable for you and your family.
Other ways to demonstrate interest in a college include visiting the college's campus and taking a tour. You may also participate in an optional admissions interview, follow the college on social media, and read and respond to email messages sent from the college.
If you follow a college on social media, be sure there is nothing on your account that could hurt your chances of being admitted. Some students have had college offers rescinded as a result of things they posted online.
4. Organize information to do comparisons
Once you gather information you feel is important about each college, such as graduation rates, interesting majors and how much tuition will cost after you get financial aid, organize it in table form on a spreadsheet so you can do a visual comparison. But if you're not into making spreadsheets, the College Navigator allows you to "favorite" schools for comparison. Similarly, the College Scorecard allows you to "compare" information side by side for schools you choose.
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Whatever method you choose, be sure to do the comparisons again after you get your acceptance letters, which should detail how much financial aid or scholarship money you are getting to defray the cost of tuition. The comparisons will be even more crucial as you get closer to making your final choice.
It's natural to have thoughts and feelings about a particular school. For instance, you might be enamored with the school's football team or heard that a particular school is a great place to party. By taking the time to do a little homework about the colleges you may want to attend, you'll at least have some objective information to go along with whatever thoughts and feelings you have about a given school.