Learning from my struggle with college applications

A student describes what their struggles as a first-generation college student has taught them, and how they’ll use them to better help their younger sister.


My parents grew up in El Salvador, where they didn’t get very far in their education. While I’m unsure of how much time my dad spent in school, my mom only made it to sixth grade because her family could no longer pay for her education.

After my sister and I were born in the United States, my parents enrolled us in private schools from Pre-K through high school because providing us with a good education was important to them. They didn’t want us to lack the years of education they did, and it felt like they were living vicariously through us to achieve what they couldn’t.

When it came time to apply to colleges, I felt lost. Many of my classmates had relatives who attended college they could lean on for advice. My mom felt bad she couldn’t help me apply but still encouraged me to complete them to the best of my ability.

Although I felt lost navigating the process as a first-generation college student, the knowledge I’ve gained from applying has made me feel prepared to help my younger sister when she completes her college applications.

While my high school offered some resources on applying for colleges, it was intimidating for me because I didn’t know anyone who could give insight into their personal experiences.

I needed to do a lot of my own research into the nitty-gritty aspects of applying and what school would best suit me. The only thing I knew was I didn’t want to stay in my home state, Maryland, and remain in a familiar environment — I wanted to live on my own and gain more independence.

I applied and toured several out-of-state schools in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois, wanting to be open to different places and see where I could envision myself. It may have been quite the leap as the first in my family to attend college, but it’d ultimately make me happier to not feel confined to a familiar environment.

Because I wanted to go out of state for college, I knew it’d be more expensive. I had little faith in earning academic scholarships because I didn’t have stellar grades or standardized test scores in high school, so I had to look into outside scholarships and grants.

I applied to several national scholarships with few eligibility requirements but didn’t really look into local or specialized scholarships. Many colleges I applied to asked if I was a first-generation college student, and I was hopeful I’d get a scholarship for that, but I didn’t get any from them. I felt let down but knew there were many first-generation students who were more attractive applicants than me given my lack of involvement in extracurricular activities.

One of the main things I wish I knew before I began applying to colleges is to look more into local or specialized scholarships. Most of the scholarships I applied to were on the national level and had few eligibility criteria. Because of that, more students would apply to them, making the chances of being selected very slim.

While I felt discouraged at times, knowing I had friends who were also the first in their families to attend college made me feel more optimistic about my efforts.

As I’m about to wrap up my second year in college, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved since coming to Temple University, despite facing hardships when initially applying. I moved to a new city, discovered a passion for writing, became a newspaper editor and grew more confident in my abilities.

Although I struggled with college applications, I’m grateful my younger sister, who is in high school, won’t struggle as I did. With my mom and I now more familiar with the process, she’ll have more support with her college applications.

As she concludes her sophomore year of high school, she’s expressed uncertainty on what colleges are suitable for her and what major she wants to pursue. My mom has advised her to pursue a major that guarantees job opportunities, but I’ve told her to study something she’s interested in, so she won’t be miserable in her classes.

It’s unfortunate I had to navigate the process mostly on my own, but the knowledge I’ve gained makes me feel equipped to help my sister avoid mistakes and tell her things I wish I knew.

My family has expressed how proud they are of my accomplishments, despite how difficult it’s been as a first-generation student. I hope to graduate not only to make them proud, but to make the efforts I put into getting to college worth it. First-generation college students may have more hardships in applying for and attending college, but it’s remarkable how much we can achieve, especially when we support each other.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.