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First-Generation Families

At Stevenson we have many families that are newer to the United States. Some families have lived in the U.S. for years and are citizens or permanent residents, some are here on visas, and some are undocumented. We work with all families through this process. If your family is undocumented, please review additional information and resources at the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling website.

As we meet with families from all over the world, we hear one common theme: navigating the undergraduate admission process in the U.S. can be very confusing. Our admission processes to colleges/universities/schools (these words will be used interchangeably) operate so differently than most other countries. For most colleges in the U.S., there isn’t a certain test score, alone, that automatically admits you. Most schools will look at applicants holistically. Holistic admissions means that they will review standardized test scores (ACT or SAT), high school transcript, essays, co-curricular activities, and perhaps letters of recommendation and/or demonstrated interest. In particular, with more highly selective schools, they are looking to see the fit of the student with the university.

In the U.S. there are about 4,000 colleges and universities. All are wonderful, great institutions that offer distinct programs, in different settings, with unique opportunities. We know that in some countries, there are only a few “good” colleges, and an entrance exam determines which one you might attend. This is not the case in the U.S. We encourage families to read, Where You’ll Go is Not Who You Will Be by New York Times best-selling author Frank Bruni. This book does a wonderful job profiling the role of undergraduate degrees at different schools. Its message is this: Being successful in a career, or post-undergraduate studies, is more about what you do and take advantage of at your college versus what college you attended. It is more important to find a school that fits a student academically, emotionally, financially, and socially throughout their undergraduate journey so the student can feel comfortable to take advantage of all that school can offer.

Highly Selective Admissions

Many colleges have become very selective. Schools like Washington University (Wash U), Northwestern, University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan, to just name a few, have very low admission rates. Admission rates that are below 25% are considered highly selective. Schools that are highly selective are difficult to predict what students they will admit. Even students with perfect test scores, rigorous academic schedules, high GPAs, and many co-curriculars may still be denied or waitlisted. These schools tend to have very large applicant pools and have many well-qualified students applying.

The goal for the school is to “build” a class. Colleges value diversity in all areas and want a freshmen class that represents a microcosm of the world. Colleges are looking to admit students from Maine and Wyoming; they need a tuba player, a lacrosse player, and someone to study philosophy. The schools want racial, socio-economic, and cultural diversity. The college does this all while only being able to admit a small amount of their applicant pool. Admission is often less about being academically capable, and more about what you may bring to their campus. Because of this, we recommend that students ensure they have applications to schools where admission is easier to predict in addition to schools that are considered highly selective. Read more about highly selective admissions.

College Rankings

Rankings are quite controversial in the U.S. and among colleges. The rankings can be subjective and the factors that influence a school’s rank can be influenced or easily skewed. For instance, a college can look more selective by merely flooding students with their application; lowering their application fee, or reducing the essays a student needs to write. This then increases the amount of students that apply, but the school probably isn’t admitting more students, so it causes their admission rate to be lower and their rank to increase. Rankings are determined by what the magazine, website, or news organization feels is important. This may not be what you feel is important. We caution all of our families not to rely on rankings to determine where to apply. How a college “fits” with the student is of the utmost importance. Prestige, rankings and selectiveness of a college does not guarantee a job, nor that a student can or will take advantage of the opportunities that a school can offer.

We encourage students to look at the honors programs/colleges at the particular colleges they are considering. For schools that seem “less selective,” they provide students with opportunities that are more personalized, unique, and may be easier to take advantage of than at a more selective school. In addition, students may be eligible for merit-based scholarships at these schools (scholarships that are based on academic performance), where at a very highly selective school they may not offer this type of scholarship.

Standardized Tests - TOEFL or IELTS

All colleges will accept either the ACT or SAT and do not have a preference between the two tests. If you have been in the United States for less than three years, and English is not your native language, schools may want you to take an English proficiency exam. Students should check into the requirements with the individual colleges, since they will vary. Schools may require you to take the TOEFL or the IELTS exam if your ACT/SAT scores are lower, and you have been learning English for less than three years.

Transcripts From Other Countries

When you are applying to colleges, you will be sending your SHS transcript. If you have moved during your high school career, you may need to send your transcript (translated) from your home country. Though we have a copy of your courses on the SHS transcript, they are often translated to fit our curriculum. Many colleges may prefer a transcript from your other high school(s). We encourage students to speak to the admission offices directly about their preference.

Types of College Degrees

Degree types (note estimated program length assumes students are attending full-time):

Certificate Programs: Typically offered at community colleges and are completed in 12-24 months.

Associate Degree: A two-year degree offered at community colleges. Often these courses can be transferred to a college/university to work toward a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree: A four-year degree that is completed at a college or university. Students can start at a community college (e.g., College of Lake County or Harper College) and transfer to a four-year college/university to complete the degree. Students will receive the diploma from the four-year school.

Master’s Degree: An advanced degree that is beyond a bachelor’s degree. Students must have completed a bachelor’s degree prior to starting a master’s degree.

Doctoral Degree: A four- to eight-year degree beyond a bachelor’s degree. Students must have completed a bachelor’s degree prior to starting a doctoral degree.

Types of Colleges/Universities

Community Colleges: These colleges usually offer certificate or associate degrees. They also work with four-year schools to transfer your credits toward a bachelor’s degree. These colleges are usually inexpensive compared to four-year schools and are commuter based. Many of our SHS students start at a community college to save money. In addition, if a student doesn’t have a strong academic record at high school, community colleges allow students to have a fresh start. four-year colleges will review the community college record, and not the high school record and test scores. Community colleges in our area are College of Lake County (CLC), Harper College, and College of DuPage.

For-Profit Schools: These schools offer a variety of degrees (from certificate programs to bachelor degrees). Though many of these schools offer great programs and opportunities, they do not adhere to the code of ethics as followed by most of our colleges/universities. Some schools may have strict attendance policies, financial guidelines, or can pressure students prematurely to commit to attending. We encourage families to read this guide on for-profit schools for more information. Schools that we see students consider are: UTI (Universal Technical Institute), Tricoci University, Illinois Institute of Art, and DeVry.

Public Colleges/Universities: Public schools are funded, in part, by the state in which they are located. In general, public schools tend to be larger in size. For Illinois, our public schools include Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University, Western Illinois University, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois at Springfield, Southern Illinois University (with campuses in Edwardsville and Carbondale), Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, and Governors State University.

Since public schools receive funding by the state, they are usually less expensive for in-state residents and more expensive if you live outside the state. Some of the schools may also be significantly more competitive for admissions if you are an out-of-state resident (e.g., University of California campuses, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Some out-of-state public schools will offer merit scholarships to out-of-state residents while others may not. Each state also has different rules about residency. Most states do not allow for students/parents to gain residency easily. Often gaining residency in a state involves your primary residence location, voter registration, employment, and/or vehicle registration (for instance, owning a second home in Wisconsin will not be enough to gain in-state residency).

Private Colleges/Universities: Private colleges and universities are not funded by the state in which they are located. These schools are funded by donors and endowments. Though initially the sticker price of the school will often be higher than a public school, they are often more flexible with awarding scholarships and grants. Many times we see private schools cost the same, or are more affordable, than a public school, once scholarships and grants are awarded. In general, private schools tend to be smaller in size than publics, but many have medium or larger undergraduate populations. Some of these schools may have a religious affiliation. These affiliations can be “loose” (where there are no requirements for religion courses or convocation hours) or more connected to a particular faith. Private schools that we often see our students consider are Bradley University, DePaul University, Loyola University, Marquette University, Northwestern University, Tulane University, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University, and Washington University (in St. Louis).

Visiting Colleges

We find sometimes our first-generation families do not often feel the need to visit colleges. In the U.S. this is an important part of the process. It goes back to finding the “fit” at a school. If a student is looking at Ivy League schools, they are not all the same. Visiting a school will provide students valuable information for the “why us” essay and the opportunity to see if it fits them. (See the Applying to College link on our main College page for details.) Visiting also assists students when they are finalizing their application list. Quality applications enhance admission chances better than the quantity of applications. Visiting a school and knowing that it isn’t a “good” fit will be one less application you will need to complete (and pay for), and potentially several less essays you will need to write (so you can focus more on the essays at the schools you love). See our page on college visits to learn more about questions you may want to ask and the process of setting up a visit.