Monikah Schuschu 9 min read Applying to College, Tips for Parents

Helping Parents Understand College Applications: A Guide for First-Generation College Applicants

While your college applications are mostly about you and what you’ve accomplished, the process of applying to college will inevitably involve your family as well. Whether they’re picking you up after the ACT, helping you choose colleges to consider, or filling out financial aid paperwork, your parents can contribute to your application process in a variety of ways.

However, involving your parents can get a little more complicated if you’re a first-generation, or “first-gen,” college applicant. Being first-gen simply means that neither of your parents have graduated from a four-year college. In this situation, they may not have the same well of experiences and resources to draw from when they assist you with your college applications, and they may not be as familiar with the application process as some other parents. The kinds of support other students take for granted may not be so easy for you to access.

If you’re a first-gen college applicant who is unsure about how to get your parents involved in the application process, this is the post for you. Here, we’ll go over some tips on what your parents need to know and how you can help them to help you.

How are parents usually involved in the college application process?

Family assistance in one form or another is a normal and expected part of the college application process. Of course, the extent of parental involvement in the process varies from family to family, depending on your individual circumstances, resources, and preferences.

If you are not already aware, you should know that certain parts of your application will definitely require input from your parents. In addition to these requirements, parental support can help a great deal with the entire process in both practical and personal ways. Regardless of their level of educational attainment, your family will likely want to be actively involved in your college application process and to help you in any way that they can.

We should reiterate here that, obviously, not every first-gen college applicant has the same background. The term “first-gen” technically depends only upon your parents’ educational status. However, there’s no denying that having parents without college degrees can mean that your and your parents’ life experiences differ from those of families where one or more parent has attended college. For a significant number of students, being first-gen correlates with having a lower family income and/or coming from communities in which fewer people attend college overall (though this is not necessarily the case).

Your family’s circumstances may or may not resonate with the concerns we describe here, and there is no right or wrong way to be first-gen. In this post, we’ll err on the side of over-explaining for students and parents who have the most limited exposure to information about the college application process. Below, we’ll go over some of the main ways in which parents often help.

Family and demographic information

College applications will require you to provide information about your parents, including their names, occupations, and levels of educational attainment. We’ve covered the basic questions you’ll most likely be asked in our blog post “Why Does The Common Application Ask Where My Parents Went to College?”

Some specific schools may ask more detailed questions about your parents and their backgrounds. In addition, it may be necessary to speak to your parents in order to get correct information about your siblings or other family members for questions on your application.

Financial information for need-based financial aid

Parental input is essential if you intend to apply for need-based financial aid. As we at the CollegeVine blog have already covered in our “Guide to Financial Aid”, financial aid applications will require you to submit detailed information on your parents’ financial status, including documents like tax returns. This information is used to calculate your financial need and, eventually, your aid award.

Similarly, you may be required to directly or indirectly submit parental information if you’re seeking other types of financial assistance with the college application process, such as admissions fee waivers or standardized test fee waivers. You’ll find more details about these programs in our post “The Complete Guide to Fee Waivers in the College Application Process.”

Practical and emotional support

The other ways in which parents can be involved with your college application process are more subtle, but numerous. Parents may be able to provide highly valuable support for students both in managing the practical tasks that make up the college preparation and application process and in making thoughtful decisions about college and career goals.

Practically speaking, parents are usually involved in making sure you have access to transportation, the Internet (now that online applications are the norm), funds for application-related fees, and other resources that are essential to the application process. They can remind you about deadlines and make suggestions about which college would fit you best. They can also cheer you on and offer reality checks, both of which are necessary to keep you on track.

Not every parent fills every one of these roles, but as you can see, your parents and their support can have quite an impact on your progress through the college application process. Parents who didn’t graduate from college are no exception. However, since they likely have less experience with the college environment, they— and you— may not be certain how they can best help you succeed.    

What do my parents most need to know about my college applications?

Obviously, the more your parents know and understand about the college application process, the better. It’s a lot of information to digest, and we’ll go over specific helpful resources later in this post. However, there are some particular aspects of the process that might not be obvious to them if they have limited past experience with college.

It’s important for parents to recognize that preparing for the college application process starts early, especially if you’re interested in very competitive schools. Application deadlines may happen as early as the fall of your senior year, and by that due date, you’ll need to have completed a number of specific requirements. Colleges take these deadlines very seriously, and your parents should as well.

For most colleges, standardized testing is a necessity, and since these tests are only offered at certain times in certain locations with registration in advance, advance planning is equally necessary. Different colleges require you to send in different test scores, and your parents may not be familiar with all the required exams. You’ll need to discuss your testing plan with your parents, including how you’ll pay for the tests and how you’ll get to the testing location.

If you’ve started to look into the college application process, you’ve probably discovered already that college applications in the 21st century can require a great deal of time and work to complete. Acceptance rates at competitive schools are lower than ever, meaning that you’ll need to apply to a strategic range of safety, target, and reach schools, not just a few of your favorites.

Complex applications for multiple schools, plus standardized testing and keeping up your grades, add up to a major commitment, and your parents will need to understand that you’ll have to dedicate significant energy to this process. It’s not something that you can complete overnight, and the more prestigious or competitive the colleges to which you’re applying, the more work it will take to apply.

The time investment that the college application process requires can mean that your ability to contribute to other household and family tasks or to paying work during application season will be limited. This can be a difficult area to navigate in your relationship with your parents, especially if they depend upon you for things like chores or babysitting. However, college applications are important, and helping your parents understand the amount of work required is necessary to finding a solution that works for your family.

In addition to your time, applying to college will involve the financial investment of application fees, testing fees, and optional costs like that of visiting the college. This can come as an unwelcome surprise to your parents, especially if your family is on a tight budget. However, as we’ve mentioned above, you can tell your parents that full or partial fee waivers are available if you need assistance covering these costs.  

Your parents may also not know what to expect regarding the cost of college, which has increased considerably over time. It will help them to know that financial aid is often an option to make college more affordable, but they’ll also need to be informed about the process of applying for financial aid, which requires a number of forms and documents of its own. Typically, you’ll need to apply for financial aid around the same time as you apply for admission.  

How can I help my parents learn more about applying to college?

Clearly, there’s a lot of information that you’ll need to share with your parents in order to make sure that they understand your needs and goals during the college application process. It’s natural to feel somewhat overwhelmed if you have the responsibility of not only learning about the process yourself, but also conveying that understanding to your parents.

Fortunately, you don’t have to do this alone. A variety of resources exist through which your parents can learn more about the complex and multifaceted process that you’re undertaking, and helping your parents to access these resources can help you lift some of the burden off your own shoulders.

The resources that you yourself are using to learn about colleges and the application process are a great place to start. There are a huge number of books, websites, blogs, and other sources of information out there. Here at CollegeVine, of course, we’re quite proud of the CollegeVine blog, where our experienced writers cover all of the topics we’ve mentioned as well as many others.

Your guidance counselor can also be a great resource for your parents. If possible, help your parents to set up a meeting with the counselor and start building a relationship. That way, they’ll have someone else to ask questions when they’re confused. Similarly, teachers, extracurricular leaders, tutors, family friends, or other community members may be able to help— think about who in your network has recently dealt with the college application process.

You should keep your parents updated and involved with what part of the process you’re working on at the moment. (We’ll go over some practical tips on how to do this below.) Most likely, your parents will want to be involved with such a momentous decision, and they may have insights into the process that will surprise you.

Encourage your parents to attend informational events in your school and community that are aimed at parents of college-bound students. If they’re unsure or confused afterward about anything they hear at these events, you can answer questions yourself or direct your parents to your guidance counselor or other resources.

Last but not least, don’t underestimate your parents. Being without college degrees simply means that they may be less familiar with the specialized forms, terms, and processes with which you’re now engaging. Their level of educational attainment doesn’t reflect poorly on their ability to understand these elements of the applications process, and their insight and support can still be of great help to you.

What do I do if my parents don’t seem to understand?

First and foremost, be patient. As you are no doubt learning yourself, the college application process is long and complex. Even more experienced parents get confused or forget things. The process itself frequently undergoes changes, and every school’s application and requirements are slightly different, making it even more difficult for parents to keep track of what’s due when and who does what.

A concrete way of helping your parents to keep track of deadlines and requirements is to put together a visual representation of the information that everyone can access. If your parents are computer-savvy, a shared Google Sheets document or similar tool can work well. A whiteboard calendar in your home can also keep your family informed from day to day. Your parents can tell you what kinds of reminders work best for them.

If your parents don’t seem to understand your explanations, don’t give up. Don’t stop providing information or start excluding your parents from the application process; this is likely to lead to hurt feelings and conflict. Instead, try different approaches or ways of presenting the information. For instance, some parents are more comfortable with print sources instead of Internet sources, while others might not have time to read a whole book, but can quickly browse a webpage on a particular topic.

We’ve mentioned that guidance counselors, as well as other community members, can be very helpful as resources for your parents. Don’t forget that these individuals are resources for you as well! Do your best to seek support outside your home when you need it, both to improve your application and to preserve your well-being during this time of stress.

Finally, do your best not to get frustrated with your parents. We all know that that can be a tall order, but it’s very important; you’re busy enough during this time without additional family conflict to deal with. Assume good faith whenever possible, and recognize that this is a time of great change and stress for your parents as well as for you.

Being a first-gen college applicant can definitely be difficult, but it’s something to be proud of and to celebrate, both for yourself and for your community. You’ve worked hard to get where you are despite the obstacles in your path.

At the same time, your parents have worked hard to help you get past those obstacles. Behind every successful applicant is a support network working to keep that applicant pointed in the right direction, and your parents are an integral part of that network. With your help, they can learn to help you more effectively— and maybe even become sources of knowledge themselves for the next first-gen college applicant they meet.

Interested in hearing more about how being a first-gen college applicant may affect your application process? Take a look at the CollegeVine blog post “How Does Being a First-Generation College Student Affect My Application?” for more information.

Here at CollegeVine, our admissions experts can provide extra assistance with and insight into every aspect of the college application process, from testing to essays to extracurriculars to interviews— and we do it all more affordably than our competitors. To schedule a free initial consultation, fill out the form below![gravityform id=”2″ title=”false” description=”false”]

Monikah Schuschu

Monikah Schuschu

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.
Monikah Schuschu

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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.