The College Admissions Process

College acceptances are starting to roll in for high school seniors so I wanted to take a look at one of the first hurdles for first-generation students: the college admissions process.

There was never a question in my family of whether or not I was going to college. The problem was knowing how to get there, and I overcompensated for that gap in knowledge by obsessively researching what I could make of the little resources I had.

My school had one college advisor that we shared with another high school in the district, and as hard as she worked for us, she was understandably spread thin. Instead, I got advice from English teachers who paused their curriculum to help us write college admissions essays and apply for scholarships. The College Board was one of my most frequented sites for months. When it came time for the SAT, I studied out of practice books that’d been donated to my school by a nonprofit that also offered us a handful of district-wide study sessions. I took the test twice: once for free at my school, and the second time using a fee waiver. All this to say getting into college was hard — and I was lucky in a lot of ways!

I’m only a few years removed from the experience, but now that I’m on the cusp of graduating, applying to college feels like a lifetime ago. I wanted to hear about the process as it’s happening in this post-Operation Varsity Blues world.

‘I didn’t know what to look for or what I wanted — I just wanted to go to college’

So I spoke to Tiffani Torres, a first-gen student and a senior at Pace High School in New York. She’s also a member of Teens Take Charge, a student group advocating for the integration of New York City Public schools. Tiffani’s been getting college prep support from SEO Scholars, a nonprofit that supports low-income students, since her freshman year and she was recently accepted at Georgetown. You may have seen her reaction to opening her acceptance letter on Twitter. We spoke about fears for the future and identifying as first-gen.

That’s Tiffani in the middle speaking to reporter Adam Harris at The Atlantic’s annual education summit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can read our full conversation here.

ZO: I saw that you got into Georgetown. Congratulations!

TT: Thank you! I was actually working on an application before I got my acceptance from Georgetown and when I got in, I was like, “I’m done!” The entire process was just so emotionally draining. There were so many factors to take into consideration and after a while all the colleges just started to look the same. I didn’t even know what to look for or what I wanted, I just wanted to go to college.

ZO: How do you think your experience would’ve been different compared to other students at your school who aren’t in SEO?

TT: It’s difficult for a lot of the seniors at my school to work on their college applications just because of the lack of knowledge. A lot of the students at my school come from immigrant families and they don’t really know much about the college application process. All they know is either a CUNY or Harvard. A lot of my friends haven’t finished their FAFSA or even have a list of colleges set yet or letters of recommendation yet whereas SEO encouraged us to ask for those by July.

ZO: I know you haven’t committed yet but what was it like when you got the acceptance to Georgetown?

TT: I didn’t allow myself to have a dream school throughout the entire process because I didn’t believe that I could get into a competitive school. Just knowing what I know about how unfair the college admissions process is, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. So then I was like, if I don’t get in then I didn’t expect it so I’ll be sad for a day but I’ll get over it. But if I do get it, then yay!

ZO: You mentioned wanting to get out of the city despite some of the concerns you might have about what college is going to be like. What are some of those things you’re worried about?

I definitely do feel like I’m underprepared academically and socially. I’m going to be in a space where my classmates are all going to look like each other, and I won’t be able to say I see myself in everyone because they’re all going to have very different experiences than mine. At [a summer program I did at Brown], I was the only one that I had spoken to from Brooklyn. Everyone who was from the city was from the Upper East or West side. No one was in the projects.

ZO: Do you consider being a first generation college student part of your identity?

TT: My entire life has been, “you’re going to live the life that we didn’t have the opportunity to live” so I take pride in knowing that I’m going to be one of the first to go to college. Knowing that I was able to get here despite not having a lot of people in my family be able to support me because they haven’t been in that position is something that I’m really excited to be able to share.

If you have the time, I’d encourage you to read my full interview with Tiffani because she touches on some key points about the application process, especially about the feeling of being underprepared no matter how much work you do.

Not only are first-gen students going through this process with little or no family guidance, they often can’t turn to their schools either. A survey of more than 2,000 guidance counselors found that only 33 percent of public high schools have a full-time or part-time counselor dedicated to college advising, compared to 68 percent at private schools. You can imagine which public schools get counselors, and which go without.

And some parts of the application process you miss out on entirely, like campus visits. Something as seemingly simple as not being able to travel for college tours can affect your admission prospects. I, for one, didn’t visit any schools I couldn’t get to with a MetroCard  —  including the one I attend right now.

But if it’s any solace to the first-generation students reading this, I’m currently writing this newsletter in the student center at my university. It can be easy to let the pressure of getting into college get to you, but getting through the application process is possible, and once you do, you come out with savvy that’ll get you to the finish line. And in the meantime, allow yourself a breath.

Good reads:

  • Some undocumented students find letdown at end of NY Dream Act rainbow,” by Josefa Velasquez for THE CITY
  • Imagined Mexicans,” by John Paul Brammer for his ¡Hola Papi! newsletter

Thanks for reading,


A journalist and first-generation college student originally from Yonkers, N.Y., Zipporah is in her last year at Northeastern University. She has reported for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education,...