Getting Ready for College: What ELL Students Need to Know

Note: This article is Part 1 of a two-part series. Creating a College-Going Culture for English Language Learners follows this article.

We have to tell students that they can achieve and they can overcome language barriers, and then help them start thinking about and preparing for college very early. Being hopeful and bringing a positive message goes a long way. The most important thing is to believe that students can achieve, and to reinforce what is possible instead of what isn't.

— Dr. Frances Contreras

For English language learners (ELLs), the challenges of applying to college can be overwhelming. One of Colorín Colorado's advisors, Christine Rowland, tells this story about a student of hers in Getting ELLs on the College Track:

I had a student my first year of teaching named Joanna. She was a hallway walker. She would cut class two or three times a week. She was a nice kid and would do good work when she was there, but she cut a lot. After about a year and half she decided to get her act together, but it took her five years or so to graduate.

In her senior year, I started working with her on getting into a college. She wanted to be a doctor, but her average was very low, and there was no way she could get into a program that would lead to medical school. I suggested that she try to get into nursing.

She really wanted to get into a four-year nursing program. I tried to convince her to apply to two-year programs, because I didn't think she would get into a four-year program, but she had it in her mind that she wanted a degree. I always encourage my students to apply to their dream school, along with other schools, and, of course, she was rejected. I've never seen a student so upset by a rejection. Floods of tears, just devastated. She didn't get accepted to any of the four-year colleges — I'm not sure that she even got accepted to the two-year nursing program either.

I started talking with her about community college again. I explained that she would have to work hard for two years, and if she continued to work and didn't lose heart or hope, she might be able to go somewhere from there.

Then, in May, we got an emergency call from a private, four-year university in New York. They were starting a new bilingual nursing program and were desperate for students. That late in the year, most candidates were already committed to other schools. It was unbelievable timing.

We wrote glowing reports of Joanna, and she got accepted into their four-year program. About a year later, she appeared in a Spanish-language supplement in the Daily News. There was a full-page picture of her, a write-up on the program and of her, talking about how she came back to school and what a stellar student she was. It was really great.

Fortunately for Joanna, once she had decided that she wanted to go to college, an opportunity presented itself, and a group of teachers was able to help her through the process. For many students, however, the opportunity to go to college or to find the right support system never presents itself — particularly for English language learners.

Nevertheless, ELL teachers can play a critical role in helping students prepare for and go through the college application process. This article will offer a brief outline of tips and resources for ELL teachers who would like to help prepare their students for college. Remember that high school counselors and college admissions counselors/advisors have much more detailed information and will know of programs and admissions requirements for institutions in your local area. I encourage you to build partnerships with your school's guidance counselors so that you can determine how best to support each other and your students.

Getting Started

ELLs and Higher Education

The challenge of helping ELLs get on the path to college is one that many educators are already familiar with; given current demographic trends, however, it is a challenge that more and more schools around the country will face as the nation continues to diversify. For example, the Pew Research Center projects that "the Latino population, already the nation's largest minority group, will triple in size and will account for most of the nation's population growth from 2005 through 2050. Hispanics will make up 29% of the U.S. population in 2050, compared with 14% in 2005."1

In addition, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects that between 2004-05 and 2014-15, the nation's public high schools will produce:

  • Almost 207,000 more Hispanic graduates (an increase of 54 %)
  • Nearly 46,000 more Asian/Pacific Islander graduates (an increase of 32 %)
  • About 12,000 more Black, non-Hispanic graduates (an increase of 3 %)
  • About 2,000 more American Indian/Alaska Native graduates (an increase of 7 %)
  • Nearly 197,000 fewer White, non-Hispanic graduates (a decline of 11 %).2

It's also important to keep in mind that many ELLs may:

  • be the first person in their family to attend college
  • attend college part-time so that they can earn money to support their family
  • take an "un-traditional path" and take longer to finish their degree

Note: For more information on trends of Latinos undergraduate students, take a look at the Excelencia in Education website.

The First Steps

Given these trends, it's not surprising that many ELLs don't know where to begin the college application process, and that many ELL teachers are wondering how to help their students get to college. While ELL teachers can't do it alone, they can provide invaluable support once they realize what their students most need.

Early in my ESL teaching career, I was fortunate to be named the coordinator of an after-school program designed to increase the academic achievement of ELLs. The students met every day and received help learning English and completing homework assignments. I got to know the students very well and became familiar with their academic progress, as well as their hopes and dreams. I realized many of the students had no idea how to begin to apply for college, and many didn't think they would qualify nor have enough money. Their parents, with their limited English and unfamiliarity with the U.S. educational system, often didn't know how to help them either. I designed a requirement in my program that all juniors and seniors attend my "field trips" to local colleges.

We visited a community college, a public university, and a private college. The students began to understand their options and the differences between different types of higher learning institutions. My favorite memory was of one my students who assured me that she would not be attending college. She claimed she wasn't that interested, and that it wasn't a possibility for her. At the end of one of our college tours, I watched in amazement as she skipped down the marble stairs and shouted, "Miss Kristina! I'm going to college! I understood everything they said in there!"

It was then that I realized how little my students knew about going to college, the requirements needed to apply, and the steps to get there. Once I figured that out, though, I was able to think about what information and support they most needed, and role I could play in helping them get that information and support. What my students needed may be different than what your students needed, so it's important to get a sense of where they're at in their attitudes and perceptions about college, and then start from there.

The Role of the ELL Teacher

One of the first things to consider is what your role will be throughout the process of helping your students get on the path to higher education. It will probably be a little bit guidance counselor, a little bit editor, and a little bit cheerleader. As an ELL teacher, you may know your students and their strengths better than other teachers in the building; as such, you can be an advocate for them as well. You can also help students in these areas:

Having high expectations: As Dr. Frances Contreras discusses in her interview with Colorin Colorado, teachers can make a tremendous difference (whether it's positive or negative) for students, especially when it comes to encouraging or discouraging their students' pursuit of future goals. In her recent interview with Colorin Colorado, Dr. Contreras describes how educators' expectations can affect students:

For some Latino students, community college may be the best option, but for some other students, they may in fact be ready for a four-year institution and then never get the chance to apply because they only received information about community colleges from their guidance counselors … Right now we're so focused on making sure kids don't drop out of high school that we are not looking beyond high school graduation — everything stops after high school. We aren't pushing kids to think about college enrollment early, because a high school diploma has become the end goal. College has to be the message as early as possible — otherwise these Latino youth will not likely consider higher education to be an option for themselves.

Dr. Contreras, who holds a Master's Degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, mentions that she also faced the same kind of obstacle in high school — even as a stellar student who had demonstrated strong leadership skills and had been accepted to many of the University of California's campuses, her guidance counselor encouraged her to look for something closer to home because she didn't seem "ready" to attend a four-year university. While ELLs should consider the different alternatives that best fit their needs, it's important that the students all have access to the same information as their peers, and that ELL teachers make sure that their students are receiving that information.

Understanding what colleges are looking for: It's important to explain to students what colleges are looking for, the different elements of a college application process, and how much weight each element carries. Colleges ask for scores from the SAT or ACT (verbal and math only), high school GPA, class rank, senior schedule, college essay, teacher/counselor recommendations, and involvement or leadership in school clubs, sports, or community organizations. Admission officers look closely at course selection during high school and hope to see that students have taken advantage of curricular opportunities. Some consideration will be given to the rigor of courses and the extent of improvement over the four years; the emphasis on extracurricular contributions is generally on quality, not quantity. ELL teachers can show students how to keep records of their activities and accomplishments so that they can compile that information easily once they start filling out their college applications.

Understanding the differences between kinds of institutions: ELLs may not be familiar with the difference between two-year community colleges and four-year colleges or universities, as well as the difference between public and private schools. Depending on their financial situation, family structure, and academic success, they may consider one kind of school rather than another. Many community colleges offer Instant Admission days where students simply show their high school transcript and can get an immediate answer about acceptance. Maintaining good grades at a community college for two years can open the door to a four-year college, but it's important that students find mentors at the community college who will be able to help them navigate through that transition process once they are ready.

Writing student essays: ELL teachers can help students think about strong topics for their student essays. One common recommendation is that students reflect on the challenges they have faced in their personal or academic life in their essay. This may also be the only place where students can explain low grades or test scores.

Choosing a course of study: Students may not be ready to choose a major when they enter college, and they need to know that that's ok! It is quite common for students not to declare a major when they matriculate; as they take general education classes and electives they will get a better idea of what they are good at and what they would enjoy doing as a career. Work with your high school counselors to give ELLs interest inventories so they can get an idea of possible fields of study that will be a good fit once they get to college.

Choosing where to apply: Teachers will need to encourage ELLs to apply to more than one college unless students are applying for early decision. Many guidance counselors recommend that students apply for at least one 'reach' school, one 'right there' schools, and one 'safe' school. Students can lose a lot of self-confidence when applying to schools, so teachers will want to support them while remaining honest with them so not to set false hopes. Along with rooting for them, teachers will find it helpful to encourage students to stay on a timetable so they can get their applications in on time, if not early.

Academic Preparation


It is very important that ELLs enroll in demanding courses that will prepare them to attend college. High school counselors need to work closely with ELL students to develop an educational course plan to ensure that students meet the requirements for college admission. Teachers of ELLs can collaborate with counselors to make sure that students and their families understand this process and its importance. Some ELLs may enroll in high school with minimal English language skills, and it may take five years to complete all the necessary requirements because of the time needed to learn English. These students especially need a detailed course plan to make sure they have the correct number of math, science, and language arts classes required for college acceptance.

Another area of concern has been the two-year language requirement of some colleges. For many ELLs this isn't feasible; however, some high schools and colleges may count ESL classes or native language proficiency towards these requirements. Check with your school's guidance counselor in order to learn which requirements apply to your students.

Teachers should also work closely with counselors to identify ELLs who have the necessary academic skills to be successful in advanced coursework and make sure they have opportunities to register for honors classes, AP classes, or college credit-bearing classes. Texas schools are encouraging their Spanish-speaking high school students to take the AP Spanish and AP Spanish Literature exams in order to get some college credits. Program coordinators are finding that the accomplishment of passing those exams is having a very positive impact on the students' attitudes about college and their own potential.


ELLs will need to pass the state required academic assessments in order to receive a high school degree. Some students may need extra support to pass these exams, and they should be informed of any special classes or programs that will help them to do so. As part of the college application process, ELLs will also need to take college entrance exams such as the ACT or SAT. Counselors need to give students information about the tests and make them aware of what to expect and how the test scores will be used. Although there is a fee for taking these tests, ACT has a Fee Waiver available for students who meet the appropriate criteria.

ELLs will also most likely be required to take an English language exam at the colleges to which they apply. Some of those exames include the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and MELAB (Michigan English Language Assessment Battery). These tests determine students' English language ability and appropriate placement in college courses. Students with less than college-level English language proficiency will most likely be placed in "developmental" courses that count as electives while they develop their college-level academic language skills. Although this is a beneficial experience and will help ensure students' success in college, ELLs need to understand that this may increase the amount of time they spend in college before receiving a degree.

Guiding ELLs and Their Families Through the College Application Process

Applications and Essays

The paperwork involved in applying for college can be overwhelming for any high school student, but it is especially cumbersome for many ELLs. Work with your guidance department to figure out ways that the school can support ELLs during the college application process, such as holding workshops on writing college essays, or having a "College Application Session" in which students are all working on their applications together with a few teachers in the room to answer questions. Otherwise, as one of our advisors shared, you might be called upon to answer the same questions numerous times throughout the college application season!

Helpful information to cover in a workshop includes:

  • an overview of the application process
  • early decision or early admission options (and information on colleges that offer discounts or waive the application fee for applying early and/or online)
  • Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP), for which low-income or educationally disadvantaged students may qualify
  • different kinds of college applications and forms (the Common application, Supplemental forms, recommendation forms, etc.)

It may also be helpful to have a separate workshop for parents and students on the financial aid process with information available in parents' native languages.

Recommendation Letters

Another important area that might serve as an effective workshop topic is that of requesting and sending recommendation letters. When students approach teachers and ask for a recommendation, they need to make sure they:

  • give enough notice to teachers
  • choose the right teacher to write a recommendation (the person doesn't need to be the teacher who has given the student their highest grades, but rather a teacher who can speak to the student's improvement and persistence, especially a teacher the student has had for multiple years or in their junior year)
  • know how to correctly address an envelope/where to put stamp
  • fill out a student profile to give to teachers/counselors to help them write the recommendation.

When writing these letters, teachers have the opportunity to emphasize a student's academic growth over the time they have been in the U.S., and bring to light their positive characteristics, strengths, and successes.

Parent Information

It's also important to bring parents into the application process and make sure they have the information they need to support their children, especially if they are new to this country or don't speak English. Most, if not all high schools, have programs for parents explaining many aspects of the college application process and financial aid. ESL teachers can collaborate with guidance counselors by getting translators for these presentations and translating handouts. For parents who can't attend, materials can be mailed home. Ask parent liaisons or coordinators for guidance so that they can help you determine the most effective ways to communicate with your students' parents.

Support Programs, Financial Aid, and Eligibility

Special Programs

There are many federal programs designed to help first-generation college students and/or those with low economic status to prepare for college. Programs such as Upward Bound, TRIO, and GEAR UP are often available through local colleges and universities. There are also other materials that offer guidance, such as Ten Steps to College with the Greens, a PBS documentary highlighting the steps to college and tips for success at each step. In the Hotlinks you will also find a link to an article about LEAP, a college preparation program for ELLs in the Shakopee school district in Minnesota. A teacher had noticed that some ELLs with high grade point averages weren't making preparations for college and discovered that the students didn't really think going to college was a possibility. The LEAP program identifies these students and offers them the support they need to apply to college.

Financial Aid and the FAFSA

In order to apply for federal aid to supplement college costs, students must fill out a Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Here are some important things to remember:

  • Filling out the FAFSA is free.
  • Students must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen in order to fill out a FAFSA form.
  • In order to complete the FAFSA online, both the student and one parent must get a secured login and password, and they must know their parents' social security numbers and have access to their tax returns.
  • The FAFSA is the federal application for financial aid, but it is also used to apply for aid from other sources, such as a student's school or state. The state deadlines may be different from the federal deadlines, and students may be required to complete additional forms. Make sure students check with their high school guidance counselor or a financial aid administrator about these deadlines, as well as about other state and school sources of student aid.

With three children in college, I can relate to how daunting the FAFSA can be. Some of the questions on the application may seem confusing, such as, "How many people live in your house?" For ELLs that number may change, depending on how many relatives stay with them at any given time, and who is earning what. Check with your high school guidance counselor or a financial aid administrator about how to handle these kinds of questions appropriately.

When the form is completed, the student will receive a report of their Expected Family Contribution (EFC) toward college. This doesn't really mean much until the student applies to college and gets a financial aid estimate. That estimate will show the Estimated Cost of Attendance minus the EFC, which will equal Financial Need (the federal government calculation based on the FAFSA).

The financial need will vary based on the cost of attendance, but the EFC is the same from school to school. ELLs will definitely benefit from close guidance as they complete this form and use it for applying to college. There are many organizations dedicated to helping first-generation and low-income students figure out financial aid programs, so take a look to see what's in your area, or if local colleges and universities have any recommendations of advisors who can work with your school.

Students also need to know exactly what they are eligible for. For example, they may be eligible for Federal programs and assistance including:

State programs will vary; for example, New York State (NYS) has the:

There are also institution programs, such as merit scholarships, need-based grants and scholarships, endowed scholarships, and athletic scholarships. To self-identify for endowments, students should write a letter to their college of choice after researching what is offered online.

Some schools may also require other aid applications such as the CSS Profile, which does have a fee and asks for different kinds of information than the FAFSA, and which various colleges use to determine if students qualify for non-federal financial aid.

Finally, there are numerous organizations dedicated to helping low-income students students find scholarships, such as Be aware of scholarship scams. Scholarship search engines and applications should always be FREE.

Organizations dedicated to helping minority students include:


ELLs may assume that they have to be U.S. citizens to attend college. In fact, whether students have legal residency documentation or not, it is still possible to attend college in the United States. Legal U.S. residency status is required for U.S. financial aid, but there are still higher education enrollment options available to students without proper documentation, as well as financial aid options. (See the Dream, Believe, Succeed! guidebook for a list of related scholarships.)There is also legislation, such as the DREAM Act, that supports students who are not U.S. citizens in gaining access to college. This legislation is designed to help students who have been in the country for at least five years and who came to the U.S. at the age of 15 or younger. While the DREAM Act has not been passed on a national level, some states such as California have passed their own version of the DREAM Act, allowing students to pay in-state tuition.

I recommend each student's college application journey be assisted by a professional counselor. This is also important because many states are legislating this issue on behalf of their statewide system, so it's important to find guidance counselors who are familiar with local and statewide systems, as well as their current policies.

Closing Thoughts

While the process of helping ELLs get on the path to college may be daunting, the rewards for you and the student can be invaluable. You may be able to help students in ways you and they had never imagined. ELL teachers have a unique opportunity to make a difference in students' lives by taking some extra time to connect them with the resources that will get them on their way to a brighter future. Every journey begins with a single step, and you might be just the person who can help your students make that first step happen.

Dream, Believe, Succeed!  A College Planning Handbook for English Language Learners

While some of the information from this guide is specific to New York City and State, there are great overviews of the college application process and considerations for ELLs and immigrant students. There is also a list of scholarships for undocumented students under the section on "Paying for College."

Hispanic College Fund

The Hispanic College Fund works to provide Hispanic high school and college students with the vision, resources and mentorship needed to become community leaders and achieve successful careers in business, science, technology, engineering, and math. Their programs include scholarship competitions, a youth symposium, an online career network, and a leadership and professional internship and placement program.

Excelencia in Education

Excelencia in Education disseminates information on effective higher education practices for Latinos, assesses the impact of institutional policies on Latino achievement, and coordinates an action network for stakeholders.

Colorín Colorado: Getting ELLs on the College Track

Interview with Colorín Colorado advisor, Christine Rowland, about the ways she helps her ELL students through the college application process.

Colorín Colorado: Providing the Right Learning Opportunities for Latino Student Success

Interview with Dr. Frances Contreras about her research on Latino students and educational opportunities.

PBS: Ten Steps to College with the Greens

A PBS documentary that follows the Greens as they prepare for college. Each segment describes the step and has a video clip to accompany the information.

Go College Website

Full-service site offering college searching, financial aid information, and more.

E-Campus Tours

Free virtual campus tours of colleges and universities.

Common Application

The Common Application provides an admission application — online and in print — that students may submit to any of their 346 members. The process can allow students to spend less time on applying for admission.

Illinois DREAM Act Information

A summary of statewide legislation makeing Illinois the first state in the country to create a private scholarship fund for undocumented youth. It also eases the path to higher education for undocumented youth, 65% of whom come from households that earn 200% under the poverty line.

United We Dream

United We Dream is the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation, a nonpartisan network made up of 52 affiliate organizations in 25 states.

NPR: Students Recall College Life as Undocumented Immigrants

Listen to an excerpt from "Undocumented Undergrads" and an interview with the editor, Kent Wong.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune Article on LEAP Program

Describes the Shakopee school district's LEAP program designed to help ELLs get ready for college.

U.S. Department of Education: Financial Aid Website

U.S. Department of Education's Financial Aid homepage.

Student Aid on the Web

An online portal from the U.S. Department of Education offering information on student financial aid. Information in Spanish is also available.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

The official website for the federal financial aid application. This is a free online application to determine the family’s expected contribution toward college.

FAFSA Pin Website

Get a PIN to sign your FAFSA electronically and conduct other online business with the U.S. Department of Education.

The SmartStudent guide to financial aid college scholarships, and student loans.

FastWeb Scholarship Search

Fastweb lists more than 600,000 scholarships for students to search for free.

College Scholarships Website

Online database listing college scholarships by state, student profile, degree, etc.

NYS Higher Education Services Corporation

Information on New York State financial aid programs, tips for choosing a school, career planning guides, and more.


Passel, J.S., Cohn, D. U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050. Pew Research Center. Published 2008.

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Knocking At The College Door: Projections of High School Graduates by State and Race/Ethnicity 1992-2022. Published 2008.


1Passel & Cohn. 2008.

2WICHE. 2008.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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Thanks for taking the time to evaluate and help all that not the general or typical future college students.
I'm trying to develop a program to get in contact with parents from other cultures for whom all this is not only overwhelming but unknown for them. As a parent from another culture so many things get assumed as "Known". I've been talking to many immigrants parents and they have no idea what to think and as overwhelmed they might think this is not for us.
I think the timing is important, getting all this information by the end of high school put the student in a total disadvantage, as many have not taking the advantage of APs the volunteer hours required by Universities references etc.
thank you
Andrea Zaspe
[email protected]

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