On Being First in Your Family
In support of #ProofPointDay Education Post staff share their reflections on being a first-generation college student.
When you’re a first-generation student, your hopes and dreams can scald your eyes.
There was pressure. So much pressure. My family expected me not only to go to college, but to be admitted to a prestigious one on a huge scholarship. My older brother dropped out of high school and was forced by our mother to return and graduate so college was a stretch for him, to put it generously. They poured all their immigrant hopes into me, to prove to themselves the move to the United States was worth all those years of uncertainty and hardship.
Being a first-generation college student means accepting you will do a lot of things without help, such as filling out financial aid forms or arranging campus visits, because your parents don’t know the first thing about applying to college.
You have no money at your disposal, so you learn to be resourceful and hunt for scholarship contests to enter or check out SAT practice books from the library. It means cutting school in the middle of the day to write the application essay burning a hole inside you.
This essay—raw, urgent, pained—will be how you convince an admissions officer that acceptance to their college will result in more than ascendance into a white collar life—it will irrevocably change who you are in ways you can only begin to appreciate years later.
Yet if the path into and through college was straightforward, I wouldn’t have developed the tenacity that has served me well in my adulthood. As stressful as it was worrying about where to find the money to pay for college or holding my own among moneyed peers who lived on Park Avenue, the self-reliance I built means even more to me than the degree I earned.
Hanna Grace Frank
When I was growing up, stability was something that came and went in the blink of an eye. We lived a day-to-day lifestyle, feeling blessed when one more day passed that we didn’t receive the expected foreclosure notice and when Mom was having a “good” week. My sister says we learned to function only in a state of crisis—“stable” is something I’ve recently adjusted to.
However, the one thing that was always expected in my house was that I, the youngest of five, would be the first in my family to go to college. We didn’t know how and it definitely wasn’t going to be the traditional four-year route, but it was certain that I would walk across a stage.
Many factors were at play as to why my family’s emotional and financial solidity was rare—single mother, mental illness and skyrocketing credit card debt, just to name a few.
But a major contributor was my parents’ inability to earn steady incomes without college degrees. Mom knocked on casino doors looking for cocktail waitressing jobs and my dad held down a stint at nearly every local car dealership.
As a first-generation student, a college degree meant stability. It meant financial freedom with a modest salary and a 401(k). It meant not having anxiety at every checkout after too many times of walking away from our cart of groceries because Mom’s card was declined.
A college degree means no longer living in a state of crisis.
Being the daughter of two immigrants who didn’t have college degrees, there was an expectation in my home that I was going to go to college, I was going to do very well there, and I was going to figure out how to pay for it. College was the path to success, and my parents made sure that was clear.
Even though my parents didn’t have any experience with colleges, getting scholarships, or have the social capital to pull strings at a major university, they worked tirelessly to both instill a strong work ethic in me and to learn everything they could about how to succeed after high school.
My junior year was filled with ACT preparation classes, essay drafts, and lots of, “They have dorms with boys and girls in them?!” Senior year was spent revising those essays and applications, searching for any and every scholarship available…and reminders that I was applying to the all-girl dorms.
For me, being a first-generation college graduate, and in fact, the first woman in my extended family to attend and graduate college, was a really big deal. I knew, being the eldest of my siblings and cousins, that I was setting an example for my family. Wanting to set a good example for them and to make my parents proud was a driver for me when I was younger, and still drives me today.
Leslie Atkin leads a college essay workshop at Wheaton High School in Maryland on Oct. 17. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Find a telling anecdote about your 17 years on this planet. Examine your values, goals, achievements and perhaps even failures to gain insight into the essential you. Then weave it together in a punchy essay of 650 or fewer words that showcases your authentic teenage voice — not your mother’s or father’s — and helps you stand out among hordes of applicants to selective colleges.
That's not necessarily all. Be prepared to produce even more zippy prose for supplemental essays about your intellectual pursuits, personality quirks or compelling interest in a particular college that would be, without doubt, a perfect academic match.
Many high school seniors find essay writing the most agonizing step on the road to college, more stressful even than SAT or ACT testing. Pressure to excel in the verbal endgame of the college application process has intensified in recent years as students perceive that it’s tougher than ever to get into prestigious schools. Some well-off families, hungry for any edge, are willing to pay as much as $16,000 for essay-writing guidance in what one consultant pitches as a four-day “application boot camp.”
But most students are far more likely to rely on parents, teachers or counselors for free advice as hundreds of thousands nationwide race to meet a key deadline for college applications on Wednesday.
[College admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision]
Malcolm Carter, 17, a senior who attended an essay workshop this month at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md., said the process took him by surprise because it differs so much from analytical techniques learned over years as a student. The college essay, he learned, is nothing like the standard five-paragraph English class essay that analyzes a text.
“I thought I was a good writer at first,” Carter said. “I thought, ‘I got this.’ But it’s just not the same type of writing.”
Carter, who is thinking about engineering schools, said he started one draft but aborted it. “Didn’t think it was my best.” Then he got 200 words into another. “Deleted the whole thing.” Then he produced 500 words about a time when his father returned from a tour of Army duty in Iraq.
Will the latest draft stand? “I hope so,” he said with a grin.
Admission deans want applicants to do their best and make sure they get a second set of eyes on their words. But they also urge them to relax.
“Sometimes, the fear or the stress out there is that the student thinks the essay is passed around a table of imposing figures, and they read that essay and put it down and take a yea or nay vote, and that determines the student’s outcome,” said Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at the College of William & Mary. “That is not at all the case.”
Wolfe called the essay one more way to learn something about an applicant. “I’ve seen rough essays that still powerfully convey a student’s personality and experiences,” he said. “And on the flip side, I’ve seen pristine, polished essays that don’t communicate much about the students and are forgotten a minute or two after reading them.”
William & Mary, like many schools, assigns at least two readers for each application. Sometimes, essays get another look when an admissions committee is deliberating.
Most experts say a great essay cannot compensate for a mediocre academic record. But it can play a significant role in shaping perceptions of an applicant and might tip the balance in a borderline case.
[Top colleges put thousands of applicants in wait-list limbo]
Essays and essay excerpts from students who have won admission circulate widely on the Internet, but it’s impossible to know how much weight those words carried in the final decision. One student took a daring approach to a Stanford University essay this year. He wrote, simply, “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. And he got in.
Advice about essays abounds, some of it obvious: Show, don’t tell. Don’t rehash your résumé. Avoid cliches and pretentious words. Proofread. “That means actually having a living, breathing person — not just a spell-checker — actually read your essay,” Wolfe said.
But make sure that person doesn’t cross the line between useful feedback and meddlesome revision, or worse. (Looking at you, moms and dads.)
“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”
Some affluent parents buy help for their children from consultants who market their services through such brands as College Essay Guy, Essay Hell and Your Best College Essay.
Michele Hernández, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, based in Vermont and Massachusetts, said her team charges $16,000 for a four-day boot camp in August to help clients develop all pieces of their applications, from essays to extracurricular activity lists. Or a family can pay $2,500 for five hours of one-on-one essay tutoring. Like other consultants, Hernández said she does pro-bono work. But she acknowledged there are troubling questions about the influence of wealth in college admissions.
“The equity problem is serious,” Hernández said. “College consultants are not the problem. It starts way lower down” — at kindergarten or earlier, she added.
Christopher Hunt, with a business in Colorado called College Essay Mentor, charges $3,000 for an “all-college-all-essays package” with as much guidance as clients want or need, from brainstorming to final drafts. He said the industry is growing because of a cycle rooted in anxiety. As the volume of applications grows, now topping 40,000 a year at Stanford and 100,000 at the University of California at Los Angeles , admission rates fall. That, in turn, fuels worries of prospective applicants from around the world.
[Stanford dean: Ultra-low admit rate not something to boast about]
“Most of my inquiries come from students,” Hunt said. “They are at ground zero of the college craze, aware of the competition, and know what they need to compete.”
At Wheaton High, it cost nothing for students to drop in on a college essay workshop offered during the lunch hour a couple of weeks before the Nov. 1 early application deadline. Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, provided pizza, and Leslie Atkin, an English composition assistant, provided tips in a room bedecked with college pennants.
Her first piece of advice: Don’t bore the reader. “It should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” she said. “You’re going to be animated about it.” Atkin also sketched a four-step framework for writing: Depict an event, discuss how that anecdote illuminates key character traits, define a pivotal moment and reflect on the outcome. “Wrap it up with a nice package and a bow,” she said. “They don’t have to be razzle-dazzle. But they need to say, ‘Read me!’ ”
As an example, Hammond Davis distributed an essay written by a 2017 Wheaton High graduate now at Rice University. In it, Anene “Daniel” Uwanamodo likened himself to a trampoline — a student leader who helps serve as a launchpad for others. “Regardless of race, gender or background, trampolines will offer their uplifting influence to any who request it,” he wrote.
Soaking this in were students aiming for the University of Maryland at College Park, Towson, Howard and Johns Hopkins universities, Virginia Tech, the University of Chicago and a special scholars program at Montgomery College. One planned to write about a terrifying car accident, another about her mother’s death and a third about how varsity basketball shaped him.
Sahil Sahni, 17, said his main essay responds to a prompt on the Common Application, an online portal to apply to hundreds of colleges: “Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Sahni showed The Washington Post two drafts — his initial version in July, and his latest after feedback from Hammond Davis. (It’s probably best not to quote the essay before admission officers read it.) During the writing, he said, he often jotted phrases on sticky notes when inspiration occurred. If no notepads were handy, he would ink a keyword on his arm “to stimulate the ideas.”
Sahni summarized the essay as a meditation on the consequences of lost keys, “how the unknown is okay, and how you can overcome it.” He said composing three or four high-stakes essays also had a consequence: “Every day you learn something new about yourself.”
Senior Sahil Sahni with Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, at Wheaton High’s college essay workshop. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)