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College Applicants: Your 6 Biggest Worries, Solved
YCteen staff

If you plan to go to college, you probably already know that you have to fill out a FAFSA by June 1, 2015, to get financial aid for the 2015-2016 school year. (The FAFSA is available at And at this point you’ve probably already chosen your colleges and started the application process. If you haven’t, you better get on it!

Joshua Steckel, a college counselor at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, knows the whole process can be trickier for kids who are already dealing with issues like poverty or other stressors at home, and who may not have someone in their family who has been to college. So he wrote a book about it, Hold Fast to Dreams. Below, he addresses some common worries.

Q: The application process seems overwhelming, and my parents don’t know how to help me.
A: Parents play a crucial role in the process, but it’s too much to ask of them alone, particularly when they work multiple jobs, lack familiarity with the process, or don’t speak fluent English. Seek out your school’s college or guidance counselor and be persistent in asking for help. They may not have the time to get on your case about applying for college or figuring out financial aid, but can help if you ask.

If your school doesn’t have a counselor, or he or she is not helpful, there are many community-based organizations that offer quality college counseling and mentoring. (See box.)

Q: Why do colleges need to know my race or family situation? I’m worried that if I fill out all the information in the family and demographics sections, colleges won’t take me.
A: Many of my students have said: if my family doesn’t have much money or education, why would they take a chance on me? But in fact many colleges are working hard to recruit students from low-income backgrounds, or who will be first in their families to go to college.

Telling colleges the facts about your family situation, such as an absent, deceased, or unemployed parent, can be hard. But fill out these questions to the best of your ability.

Don’t stress out about gathering parent information you can’t provide. In a single-parent household, it is acceptable to list the second parent as “unknown” or only to provide the information you have available.

Q: I’m trying to apply for financial aid, but I’m struggling to get required documents like my parents’ tax returns. What do I do?
A: Parents of first-generation college students in particular feel anxiety about sharing this information because they often don’t understand the requirements and timeline for the financial aid process. Many families are also concerned about disclosing personal information to people and institutions they don’t know.

Ask your counselor at school or an adult you trust to hold a family meeting to talk about your college plans so your parents understand and feel more comfortable with the process. Let them know that their income documents are crucial to making attending college a reality for you.

Sometimes, gathering these documents is difficult. For example, even if there isn’t a working adult in your family and you therefore don’t have tax returns, you still need to document some form of income. This might mean asking a parent to stand in line for a whole day at the Human Resources Administration or Social Security office to get verification of public assistance or Supplementary Security Income benefits. Offer to help your parent by managing childcare or other household responsibilities for that day. Public schools will often excuse a limited number of absences for college visits or other reasons.

Often job and family obligations make it challenging for parents to file their taxes by the April 15 deadline; some colleges even require applicants to submit family income documentation as early as February. Connect your parent with free, fast tax prep services available here:

Q: What if I’m not college material? I feel like I can’t keep up with my schoolwork while applying to college at the same time.
A: If you’re feeling stressed or struggling to have a successful senior year, it’s not an indication that you’re not ready for college or won’t be successful once you get there. Continue to believe in yourself; have faith in the strengths that got you this far. It’s hard for everyone to balance the demands of the college application process with senior year coursework.

If you feel overloaded, don’t keep your angst to yourself: reach out to counselors, mentors, and other adults and friends. If you have a part-time job, see if you can reduce the amount of hours you work. Or talk with your family about sharing some of your household obligations. Many young people carry a lot of responsibility both at home and at school. Even if talking it out can’t change that, it will help you feel supported when it feels hard to keep moving forward.

Q: While other kids can put community service and sports on their applications, my only extra-curricular activity is taking care of my siblings while my dad’s at work. Can I put that on my application?
A: Handling family responsibilities in addition to schoolwork and, often, other part-time jobs, shows admissions counselors you’re mature and capable of managing multiple time commitments. Highlight this in your application; it can be a real strength.

Think about it: Your achievements as a student are more impressive if you are working 20-plus hours per week, or if you have significant childcare or household responsibilities. Consider how impressive it is if your parents’ first language is not English, and you are the one to pay bills and help translate during interactions with doctors and teachers. It shows tremendous compassion and know-how if you are the person managing medical care for a parent, grandparent, or sibling. Use the essay and the interview (if you have one) to highlight these aspects of your life.

Q: Should I apply to all my dream schools regardless of price and then see what kind of aid I get?
A: The conventional wisdom communicated by colleges about financial aid is not to let a college sticker price keep you from applying—just apply and see what kind of aid you get, because you never know.

My conventional wisdom is different. You don’t have to wait for your financial aid package to arrive to know which colleges are most likely to be affordable. We know, for example, which selective private colleges make attending affordable for any low-income student who is admitted, no matter how high the cost of tuition. Find them at:

Use the “net price calculators” many colleges now offer on their websites to give you a sense of what the cost of attending is likely to be. And educate yourself about the different types of government aid at: It is critical that you understand the difference between grants and loans. Grants and scholarships are money you don’t have to pay back. Loans must be paid back, with interest. But this is not all you need to know.

If you and your family must take on a high level of debt in order to make attending a college possible, then the college probably isn’t the right match.

image by YC-Art Dept

Within the New York State public college systems—those are the CUNY and SUNY schools—there are many affordable choices. Be wary of colleges that market themselves to students aggressively on subway ads and TV commercials. They are often for-profit colleges that are least able to meet your financial needs.

As a rule, you shouldn’t have to borrow from non-government sources such as private bank lenders and you shouldn’t have to borrow more than is available to you through government student loan programs. Your “dream school” isn’t worth a lifetime of debt.

Hold Fast to Dreams is available at all branches of the NYC and Brooklyn public libraries in hard cover and electronic formats, and at bookstores.

Get Free College Counseling! provides all sorts of info on colleges, including a searchable directory of organizations throughout New York City that can help you with your college application and financial aid forms. These organizations can also help:

The Door

The Double Discovery Center

The Opportunity Network

The Options Center

Bottom Line (Go to New York, under “locations.”)

Scholarships & Support for Low-Income New Yorkers

The NYS Opportunity Programs are designed to support students with outstanding ability, resilience, and potential, whose families aren’t able to afford college tuition. (Eligibility requirements can be found at the links for the individual programs listed below.) Also, students who might otherwise be overlooked by a college—for example, because their SAT scores are not as strong as those of most admitted students—may be admissible through these programs. They cover 95 to 100% of the total cost of attending the college, including room and board.

The NYS Opportunity Programs is an umbrella name that refers to four different programs depending on the type of college you’re attending or applying to:

• The Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), the program at NYS private colleges.

• The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the program at most State University of New York (SUNY)

• Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK), the program at four-year CUNY colleges and College Discovery (CD), the program at CUNY community colleges.

Another plus is that New York State Opportunity Program recipients receive ongoing support from counselors, tutors, and advisers on campus. Almost all New York State Opportunity Programs have a required pre-college summer bridge program prior to freshman year. These bridge programs last anywhere from three days to six weeks, and involve building academic and study skills, fostering a sense of community and support, and making a successful transition to college life and study.

Community College Is an Option

Don’t worry that you might not get in anywhere; CUNY community colleges have a place for every student in New York City as long as you graduate high school and submit an application by the February 1 deadline.

If you do decide that a CUNY community college is the best next step for you, once you are accepted, look into CUNY Start, College Discovery, and ASAP. They are special programs that provide ongoing financial support such as MetroCards and books.

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