College Readiness

6 Steps for Supporting First-Gen Students in Applying to College

Here’s a blueprint high schools can use to create a program to ensure that students aren’t overwhelmed by the college application process.

January 2, 2024
Dan Page / The iSpot

Since the Supreme Court decision to end race-based admissions policies in 2023, many colleges and universities have a renewed interest in recruiting first-generation (first-gen) students, as a way to attract students from diverse backgrounds. There are many definitions for first-gen students, including a student whose parents or guardians have not graduated from a four-year college or university. The Center for First-Generation Student Success reports that 56 percent of all postsecondary students in the United States have parents who don’t hold bachelor’s degrees.

According to Nicole Conway, assistant principal at Bethlehem Central High School in Albany County, New York, “After seeing the incredible impact my former school’s first-gen program had on its students, I was excited for the opportunity to start Bridge to College (B2C) at Bethlehem Central High School. Under the leadership and guidance of two of our most veteran and passionate school counselors, we have supported nearly 100 first-gen students and families over the past five years. To know that we have played a part in changing the trajectory of these students’ lives is why we are so passionate about the program!” 

Focus on students’ vital needs

Read on for six key elements to keep in mind to ensure that your first-gen students get appropriate support as they start the college search.

1. Research effective first-gen programs, and plan your structure. To create a vision for our program, we considered the needs of our population and visited a first-gen program in Massachusetts, Transitioning Together. The team warmly welcomed us and shared resources. During this productive visit, we met with the coordinators, alums, and other people involved with their program. Similar to a college visit to determine fit, the high school visit gave us an opportunity to dream, plan, and discuss what would be best for us. 

During weekly planning meetings with the leadership team, we created the calendar for junior year and senior year, booked rooms, and developed a schedule and agendas for each meeting. We also worked closely with the English as a second language teacher, who provided recommendations for students and also served as a mentor.

To promote the program, we worked with communications to develop a website. A mailing was sent to all teachers introducing the program to recruit volunteer mentors. A grant from a local community organization was secured to purchase B2C T-shirts, and the principal assisted with funds for activities.

In January, a mailing was sent to the Bethlehem Central HS community inviting students to apply, and applicants interviewed with a member of the leadership team. The ideal number of students for us was between 15 and 20—we found that was a good number for us to keep the program small and personalized. Each year, we invited a few extended family members who were current students to participate and attend meetings for students who couldn’t commit to attending regular meetings. 

In the first meeting of the year, students were excited, nervous, and proud of becoming part of a first-gen community. They met their mentors, and we discussed the program expectations (regular attendance and communication with mentors is important) on an interactive white board. Mentors provide essential support for the students, in addition to the leadership team and their school counselor. The program starts in the spring of junior year and continues senior year.

2. Establish mentors as a key aspect of the program. Ideally, the best mentors are teachers. They know the students in the building, and students have a level of comfort with faculty. Teachers and administrators were excited to get involved, and a number of them were also first-gen students. An announcement of the B2C cohort was sent to teachers, and they could volunteer to work with students they knew. After pairing up mentors, we facilitated mentor training and discussed the schedule for the year. 

3. Schedule college visits. In the fall of their senior year, we take a group of enthusiastic and inquisitive B2C students to campus visits at both a private college and a public university in the local area. The team selects colleges and universities based on the cohort’s interests and needs. The visits include a tour, information sessions, and lunch. The visits are a proud tradition for us and a wonderful opportunity for students to dream, explore, and experience college. We’ve been able to receive grants from the Bethlehem Community Fund to cover the cost of lunch, and the district assists with the cost for transportation.

4. Offer SAT prep. All B2C students are invited to attend a free SAT prep course in the spring of their junior year starting in May and leading up to the June SAT. This is a $1,500 course that is supported by the district. Additional students are nominated by counselors to attend the six-week, 90-minute prep course. Exploring free options like Khan Academy is also possible. 

5. Hold a college application boot camp. In the summer before their senior year, B2C students are encouraged to attend a two-day boot camp at our school for four hours each day. The boot camp schedule includes tips from counselors, Scoir overview, guest speakers from local colleges, and a hands-on work session for college applications. On the second day, students select a beginner or advanced college application work session and brainstorm essays with an English teacher mentor. These boot camps provide a supportive space for students to make progress on their applications and feel good about their efforts. 

6. Emphasize communication. Regular communication with mentors, parents/guardians, and students is important. During the early years of our program, we used Remind and a Google Chat group to communicate with B2C community members. Now, our B2C Google Classroom provides updates, scholarship and financial aid information, summer programs, and college essay information. 

Final Recommendations

As I reflect on the last five years, I am grateful. We have amazing faculty who are generous and committed to this program. One key aspect we identified during this process includes securing payment for the leadership team.

Start small and consider building up your program each year. Identify a volunteer who can track and communicate with first-gen alums. One of our favorite meetings that we hold includes a panel of former B2C students who are at college. First-gen programs are life-changing because they provide an important community for students as they prepare for life beyond high school.

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  • 9-12 High School

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