First-Generation Students and the Art of Self-Promotion

By College Counseling

In my career as a college counselor and community college instructor, I have witnessed the valuable qualities of first-generation students.  I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to categorize these admirable characteristics and explore their values.  In so doing, my hope is that I can help first- generation students gain self-confidence, parents expand their perspectives, and counselors broaden their understanding.  As always, this pursuit of enlightenment is to promote the generation of strong college applications that accurately and positively reflect the true spirit of the applicant.  My thoughts are relevant to not only first-generation college bound students and their families, but to all families who strive for character building over resume building.

The first of the three categories of character is integrity.  Integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.  A student with integrity has strong discipline and work ethic.  In my experience working directly with first-generation students in Guilford, CT, an appreciation and gratitude for parental sacrifice motivates high ethics and goals.  In the case of international families, students have a moral desire to please their parents and excel academically because they realize the sacrifices their parents have made to selflessly promote their children’s future success.  This motivation is more productive than students who display a sense of entitlement and internalize experiences as possessions to be collected instead of accomplishments to be earned.

In the case of children of single parents or married parents that both never attended college, they understand the sense of insecurity pervasive in the home. Because the presence of a college-going culture in the home affects the likelihood of children pursuing college, first-generation students need to feel celebrated.  In addition, I am always surprised by how apologetic parents are about their lack of college education.  It is important for counselors to point out to these parents that their children have gained life lessons from them that are more valuable than any legacy.  In fact, colleges appreciate legacy status only for the increased chance that the parent who graduated from their institution may have passed on some of the integrity promoted by the college.  However, first-generation students also have an increased chance of possessing this quality.

The practical implications of this for sincere and ethical self-promotion on college applications are clear. Because integrity affects our second of three categories which is likeability, guidance counselor, teacher, peer and other recommenders have enormous impact on the college application review.  As a teacher recommender myself, I confess that I enjoy writing recommendations for students who sincerely appreciate my efforts on their behalf as opposed to students who I sense take the request for granted.  College admissions officers read countless numbers of recommendations and the ones that are effusive and enthusiastic stand out.  As such, the recommendations that are lackluster and common draw as much negative attention as the opposites draw positive.  Attend any admissions tour and dean discussion and you will hear how admissions counselors count on recommenders to help them construct a strong freshman class.  Students who are likeable also tend to possess the third quality of character which is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood quality. It is defined as a modest view of one’s own importance and it is not to be confused with humiliation. To be modest and yet confident is a perfect balance for candidates for college.  Self-promotion understands this balance.  When a first-generation student writes his or her college essay and prepares for college interviews, the sense of gratitude and hopefulness for a higher education tends to resound in person and on paper.  College counselors need to encourage and bolster this energy and help explain how events as seemingly insignificant as helping with younger siblings and holding part-time jobs create experiences and outlooks very coveted by colleges.  A college consultant once told me that it never dawned on one of his students to cite on his application the hours he spends working on his family farm.

Colleges also put a premium on service.  Some of my clients have applications that read like a service hour registry from someone on parole, while other clients list volunteer activities that exude a theme of giving, compassion, and sacrifice.  Humility lends itself to treating people the way you like to be treated, and this golden rule encourages experiences that make differences in other people’s lives.  Colleges value this outward focus as many promote their own programs of service learning and mission trips.  My son attends a college whose mission is Magis, which means to live greater.  This living greater is accomplished by living for others and devoting one’s energies to improving a corner of the world.

Quite simply, first-generation students, like all students, have something unique and valuable to contribute to the college culture.  Parents need to know this and help their children self-promote the unique traits that resulted from their family situations.  Counselors need to support their students and remind them continually how valued they are and how promising is their future of college acceptances.  And as an aside, all families can benefit from learning the lessons of first-generation students by raising their future college goers to develop characteristics of integrity, likeability, and humility.