Of the 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities close to twenty percent are first generation students. Fifty percent of all first generation college students in the U.S. are low-income and/or students of color. Many of our students enter collegiate atmospheres with no foundation or guidance and for this reason, retention amongst these students is low. When I began this site last year, I knew I wanted to provide a blueprint for parents and students starting the college process. I was especially interested in reaching those families who, like mine, were navigating these waters for the first time. I knew there was no better resource than my former college mentor, Admissions Professional and Educational Consultant Colin Lord, to lend his expertise.
Mr. Lord was born in North London, England but lived in Barbados (where his parents are from) and New York City as a child. He is a graduate of Binghamton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Africana Studies. He attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. He worked in admissions at Binghamton University and Hamilton College. He later served as the National Director of Programs at A Better Chance, Inc., Senior Director of Admission and Adviser for Students of Color at Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school, and Director of Enrollment Management at the Latin School of Chicago. Currently, he is an independent education consultant and resides in Chicago with his wife and two children.
Q. At what age do you think parents should begin to prepare their children for college?
College preparation should be an ongoing process throughout a child’s development. The important thing to remember is it should be developmentally appropriate. What I mean by that is, you shouldn’t be taking a five-year old to SAT prep classes. You should talk to your child about college and ingrain [in them] the idea that college will be the next natural step after high school. I find that our students know nothing about college, even when they are surrounded by people who attended. Another thing you can do to prepare younger students for college is to get them on college campuses. For example, if you happen to be traveling with your child, take an hour to visit colleges in the that area, even if it’s just walking around the campus. By the beginning of high school, you can schedule tours and information sessions at the schools you visit. Also, getting your child into academic summer programs are a great way to assist in their intellectual curiosity and independence. John Hopkins Center for Gifted and Talented Youth (CTY) provides an amazing boarding experience for academically talented middle school students and many independent day and boarding schools have summer programs too. In terms of the child, I’ve always believe[d] that intellectual curiosity and work ethic are imperative to academic success.
As a parent, I limit screen time and access to devices and when those devices are used, the content has to be educational. I also expose my children to anything I can find: museums, music, theater, etc. It’s [also] important you model the behavior you expect from your children since they get their cues from you. You can’t expect your child to read when they see you watching TV for most of your waking moments. Finally, its imperative you assist your child to develop a sense of self. In my experience, students of color who had extensive knowledge of their history tended to be more grounded and successful in navigating majority white educational institutions.
“College preparation should be an ongoing process throughout a child’s development. The important thing to remember is it should be developmentally appropriate. What I mean by that is, you shouldn’t be taking at five-year old to SAT prep classes, but you should talk to your child about college and ingrain in them the idea that college will be the next natural step after high school.”
Q. What tips do you have for narrowing the college search? Do you recommend applicants cast a wide net or focus their time and energy on a quality few?
This issue depends, in part, on your resources. Applications cost money, as does visiting schools, test taking, etc. And there’s the issue of time that it takes to complete each application appropriately. This is crucial since you could hurt your chances of getting into a college if they think you aren’t really interested. In terms of picking schools, I always suggest the student start by making a list of all the things that are important to them in the college they well attend, such as:
- Location. Rural, suburban, or city? Remember that cities tend to be much more expensive and harder to maintain a feel of a campus. Also, how far away from home would you like to travel? Again, finances come into play when you consider the price of plane tickets if you go far away.
- Size. This is always one that trips up students. Often times I hear students say they went to a small high school so they want something large. Some students strive at larger institutions because they have the self advocacy skills and independence that’s necessary to excel. However, larger schools [usually] don’t provide the support that smaller schools can since there is usually a pecking order of faculty’s research, grad students, then undergraduates. I also tell students that watching a college football game on Saturday with 100,000 fans looks like fun but it’s the ‘Monday through Friday’ that you should be more focused on and lectures with 500+ students may not be ideal.
- Major. With a few exceptions (like nursing), most reputable colleges and universities can provide you with the courses necessary to prepare you for your career of choice. We had a joke in college admissions that half the students enroll as undecided and the other half change their majors after they enroll. There are so many paths to achieve a professional career. I would suggest you make sure there are many majors at the schools you look at and [also] find out what the process is for changing majors, since this may very well be your reality.
- Diversity. I’m not talking about counting the black and brown students on campus. Applicants often times review stats and stop there, but there’s a qualitative reality that numbers can’t speak to. Are students from diverse backgrounds truly included in the campus community? Are there advocates in the administration? Is the faculty composition reflective of the student diversity? My college probably wasn’t the most diverse place, and we definitely had our issues, but I wouldn’t change my experience for the world. I had faculty and staff who were committed to supporting and mentoring me and the Black and Latino community was very close-knit so I never felt alone.
- Greek Life. I just had a conversation with a young woman who wants to transfer out of her current college. One of the biggest reasons was [because] fraternities and sororities pretty much control the social life on campus. If I’d met this student when she was applying to college, I could’ve warned her. If you want a diverse social life in college, it will be more difficult to achieve that goal when nearly half of the students are in greek organizations.
These are only four things to think about but you can expand on this list. I always tell students, your list is a personal exercise and nothing is too small. If you need red Kool-aid every day, then make sure you add that to the list. Co-ed versus single sex, religious versus nondenominational, discussion-based versus lecture style, core curriculum versus open curriculum, study abroad, and financial aid policies are other things to consider.
Q. What are the primary factors colleges consider in evaluating an applicant?
All colleges are looking for students who can demonstrate intellectual curiosity, this is the love of learning versus just straight As. They aren’t the same thing. Demonstrated independence will assure success and the ability to be a good citizen on campus. More colleges and universities are also looking for students who can manage disappointment. I had a conversation with a good friend who works at an Ivy league institution. After a suicide on campus, she remarked, “Forget all these… super stars, show me a kid who [can] manage adversity. That’s the kid we need on campus”.
Q. Many colleges require recommendations. Typically, references can’t be family. Do you have any advice on choosing references?
Most colleges will require a humanities recommendation, a math recommendation (both from your current teachers) and a school recommendation that’s completed by your guidance counselor [or] college counselor. Beyond that, schools usually allow for optional recommendations. First, there is too much of a good thing. Don’t submit 43 optional recommendations because it tends to water down the entire exercise AND no admission officer wants to read 43 additional recommendations! My rule of thumb is find someone who isn’t going to regurgitate what the other recommenders already said. It must be of value.
“All colleges are looking for students who can demonstrate intellectual curiosity, this is the love of learning versus just straight A’s. They aren’t the same thing. Demonstrated independence will assure success and the ability to be a good citizen on campus.”
Q. What do you feel are the benefits of going away to school versus staying home?
This is very much a personal choice but I’m always going to be a proponent of going away. College is a way to develop independence with some form of safety net around you. I did two years in the dorms and my last two years in my own apartment where paying bills and cooking and such was my responsibility. That was a good precursor for “real life” after college. Of course, staying home helps defer costs, since room and board is probably around $15K a year or more. However, most colleges subsidize room and board when you serve as an RA, so that’s one way to take care of that.
When I was at Choate, one of my students was choosing between going away and staying home. I knew [her father] was not a part of her life and her mother had serious mental health issues. What compounded the issue was there was a younger brother in the picture. It was a tough conversation that I wasn’t looing forward to but I told that student her chances of graduating were greatly diminished if she stayed home.
Q. Many parents in our community are raising children who will be first generation college students. Can you recommend any resources parents can use to prepare their children to enter college? How would you suggest parents find “mentors” to help guide them and their children through the process?
Most cities and towns have organizations and programs to help with the college process, it’s just a matter of doing the research. College Board and NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counselors) are a few places to start. In a perfect world, the student’s teachers would serve as mentors, but I always encourage parents to approach friends and family to help support the student. Other than that, tell the parents to contact me!
“…never devalue your reality because it’s different from others. When I first started working at Choate we had our first staff meeting in the admission office and everyone was asked to say how they spent their summers. I didn’t know ‘vacation’ was a verb! Folks ‘vacationed on vineyard’ and ‘vacationed on Cape Cod’. I started feeling uneasy because while I had heard of these places, I never had the chance to visit them. Thankfully, I checked myself and remembered that my experiences were different than others but no less worthy. When I had the chance to speak I said, ‘I retired to my ‘summer home’ in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.'”
Q. For many, entering college is a culture shock. You are often in classes with and rooming with people who are from places and have experiences you may not identify with. Do you have any tips for students experiencing anxiety about immersing themselves in new environments?
When I was at Choate, I gave our students two pieces of advice. [First], we attend college to grow and evolve. That being the case, approach the exercise with an open mind and don’t be afraid to try new things. A regular evaluation of “how do you know what you know” is a healthy exercise. In other words, re-evaluate and self assess regularly. It’s called growth. [Second], never devalue your reality because its different from others. When I first started working at Choate we had our first staff meeting in the admission office and everyone was asked to say how they spent their summers. I didn’t know “vacation” was a verb! Folks “vacationed on vineyard” and “vactioned on Cape Cod.” I started feeling uneasy because while I had heard of these places, I never had the chance to visit them. Thankfully, I checked myself and remembered that my experiences were different than others but no less worthy. When I had the chance to speak I said, “I retired to my ‘summer home’ in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.”
Q. Speaking of cultural differences, there have been many articles written on code switching. In many ways, members of our community are celebrated for being able to move in and out of different experiences, changing dialects with ease. Do you think the ability to code switch, that is adapt culturally, is an important part of integrating into a collegiate atmosphere?
All depends. First and foremost, I tell students that they don’t want to lose themselves in an attempt to adapt and make others feel comfortable. Each person needs to know where that line is. Also, I’ve always told my students that who you are and what you learned back home got you this far, so never let that go. Personally, I value my ability to code switch. It’s not just about amalgamating to the majority, but the exercise of assessing a situation and being able to adapt to it is a valuable skill. Code switching is a viable skill, not just for college but life.
Q. Once you get into college, it isn’t always easy to identify a career path. What would you suggest a new student do to prepare themselves for life after college?
I’ll answer by providing my story. I was pretty good at coding in high school and decided that I would be a computer science major in college because someone told me it paid well and I figured I had an affinity for that kind of work-bonus! However, I took a sociology class my freshman year called “Racial Stratification in the USA.” When I learned about the inequity in public school funding (I had an 8-year-old sister in public school), I decided I was going to be the one to address this inequity. By senior year, I was very involved in student leadership and ended up developing Binghamton University’s first fly back program for accepted students of color called the Binghamton Multicultural Weekend. It was through this program and my voluntarism in the admission office at UW-Madison that helped me identify my career path and I have never regretted it.
I tell students to explore the curriculum and to get involved outside the classroom. I think the hardest part of identifying a career is figuring out what your passionate about. Figure that out and the rest usually falls into place.
“I was empowered by the idea that I was part of community and others had come before me and been successful. The fact that I represented my community and family was empowering. [W]e all need to use our education and access to improve our communities without becoming judgemental. Never forget where you came from.”
Q. Can you recommend any resources for parents and students preparing to begin the application process? Can you speak at all to financial preparedness?
In this day and age, applying to college is like a job. Given how busy families are it is imperative that everyone in the family is on the same page. Parents, let your child know what you can and can’t do financially. Be organized and be disciplined. To avoid all-nighters, I suggest carving out just 30 minutes a day to complete essays, etc. Get to your teachers as early as possible to request recommendations. If you tell a teacher, 24 hours before a recommendation is due, that recommendation won’t be your teacher’s best effort.
In terms of financial aid, I’m not a proponent of students incurring large amounts of debt for undergrad, not matter what the school is. I don’t recommend working class parents incur the debt either. As a financial planner once told me, “Your kid can take out a loan for college, but you can’t take out a loan for retirement.” There are many scholarship options out there so hit the internet and take funding under consideration when you are looking at what colleges to apply to.
Any final words of wisdom/advice?
First, I believe in education for a purpose. Yes, go to school so you can be gainfully employed but it can’t just be about you. Personally, I was empowered by the idea that I was part of community and others had come before me and been successful. The fact that I represented my community [and] family was empowering. Secondly, we all need to use our education and access to improve our communities without becoming judgemental. Never forget where you came from.
If you have any questions for Mr. Lord, visit our Ask The Village section or drop a comment below.
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising. You can find Faye on Twitter @fayewrites and on the web at fayemccray.com.