An English Language Learner’s Guide to Getting Into College
Learning English as a second language (ESL) can be hard. English language learners (ELLs) might have trouble expressing their knowledge, but they know a lot—and they deserve to go to college so they can use that knowledge in a career, if that is their goal.
If you are an English language learner who wants to go to college or a teacher or parent of an ELL with that goal, this guide is for you.
Fast Facts About ESL in the United States
Moving From High School to College or Trade School as an English Language Learner
If you’re nearing the end of high school, you may be wondering what to do next. You have many options! Of course, you can get a job, but you can also attend college or trade school.
What is the Difference Between College and Trade School?
A college or university is a school where you can earn a degree, usually in two years for an associate degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree. Colleges are like high school because you take classes like English and math, but you also take classes related to the career you want. Associate degrees can prepare you for a job, or you can take more general classes like the ones you took in high school so you can move on to a bachelor’s program. Bachelor’s degrees require a lot more classes and can prepare you for specific jobs or give you a general understanding of a topic that you can use in many different jobs. For example, you can get a bachelor’s in engineering, which prepares you for a job as an engineer, or you can get a degree in psychology, which lets you work in many jobs related to psychology. Some students decide to keep going to school after they get a bachelor’s so they can earn master’s degrees or doctorates, which train them for jobs that require a lot of knowledge.
A trade school, which is also called a “vocational school,” teaches you how to work at a specific type of job and lets you get a license or certificate, usually in fewer than two years. There are many jobs you can get after trade school, including—but not only—hairstylist, nurse, mechanic, construction worker, dental hygienist, and plumber. There are special trade schools only for your career, but community college often also offer trade licensing programs.
Anyone can find a college or trade school that is right for them, even if English is not their first language. Did you know that speaking more than one language is actually helpful in the workforce? Because of this, many colleges want to teach students who can speak more than one language.
What Should I Do First?
If you have decided that you want to go to college or trade school, you might find the steps to get there confusing. Here are some of the first things you should do once you have made this choice.
Let your ESL teacher know your goals, and work closely with the teacher.
Teachers are important resources because they can work with you on your goals and provide encouragement.
Take additional classes or get a tutor.
Your ESL teacher can help you find a class or tutor to improve your English skills, often for free or at a low cost.
Take high school classes that give you both college and high school credit.
These are called dual-credit classes because they count for both high school and college credit. They are often taught at your high school by a high school teacher, but some are taught at a local community college. They are usually cheaper than regular college classes and the teachers understand that you are still in high school, so they are usually easier to understand than normal college classes. They also mean you do not have to take as many classes when you go to college, which is good because college will cost less. You can learn about dual-credit classes from your school counselor.
Build relationships with your teachers.
Your teachers are there to help you, not just in your classes but also in getting accepted to college or earning scholarships. Many college and scholarship applications require recommendation letters. Recommendation letters are letters from teachers that tell schools why they should let you in or scholarship organizations know why they should give you money. These can be teachers from any grade, so even if you are a freshman, you should find teachers you like and trust. Build relationships with them and keep that going even after you are not in their classes anymore. Even stopping by to say “hello” can help.
Work with your guidance counselor.
Guidance counselors are there to help you achieve your goals. Meet with them whenever you have questions or when you are picking out classes. They can help you select a set of classes that will appeal to colleges and improve your English skills.
Work on your informal English language skills.
Informal English skills are the ones you use in everyday conversations. You can get better at these by talking regularly with native English speakers and watch English language television shows. Don’t worry about perfection when you’re speaking to others.
How to Pick the Best College or Trade School for You
There are many great colleges and trade schools out there. Here are some suggestions on what to consider when picking the right school for you:
Find a school that offers a program you want.
Every school offer different academic programs, which are usually called “majors” at colleges and universities. These are geared toward what you want to do for a career. If you want to be a writer, find a school that offers a writing major. If you want to be a certified nursing assistant, find a trade school for CNA licensure. No major or trade is off limits to people who speak English as a second language.
Look for schools that have services for first generation and second language college students.
First generation students are people whose parents did not go to college, did not finish college, or who went to college in a different country. These schools probably have guidance counselors who work are trained to work with first generation and second language students. Other services you should look for are financial help specifically for first-generation and ESL students, academic help for these students, workshops or classes to help you be ready for college, and organizations or groups for these students.
Think about going to community college before earning a bachelor’s degree.
If you want to go to college for a bachelor’s degree, community colleges may be a good way to start. Community colleges have smaller classes than bachelor’s programs do, teachers who can usually pay more attention to their students, and less expensive tuition.
- Consider working for awhile after going to community college. If you earn an associate degree, you might want to get a job for awhile before you go back to school for your bachelor’s degree. This will let you understand the career better, improve English skills that are relevant to the job, and earn money for your next step in school.
Find a college with noncredit ESL classes.
“Noncredit” means they don’t count as classes that work toward your major, but they are still helpful. Some colleges offer ESL classes to help you continue to learn English. A lot of these classes help you with language used in your other classes.
Find noncredit transition courses if you’re not ready to go to college right away.
Don’t worry if you don’t feel ready for college yet. This does not mean you will never feel ready. The noncredit ESL classes mentioned above are usually also offered for students who are not in degree programs. Some other organizations also offer these classes. You should look up “transition to college” or “college 101” classes for second language learners where you live. ESL transition programs are a great way improve your English and become more comfortable with college work.
How to Apply to College
Applying to college can be overwhelming, so get help from teachers and counselors who will guide you through the process. To get you started, here is what to expect from the college application process:
Before Applying to College or Trade School
Write practice essays about common college and scholarship application topics.
Most colleges and places giving out scholarships require students applying for them to write essays. Get feedback from a teacher or counselor on your essays. When you are happy with what you have written, you can use these essays when you are filling out your application. Just be sure the essay you pick matches the topic on the application. You might need to change some things to make it fit.
Take practice standardized tests.
You have probably taken standardized tests for your school already. For college, there are different tests. The exams usually required for bachelor’s degree schools are the SAT and the ACT. You might need to take one or both depending on the colleges you are interested in. Study for and take practice exams during your junior year of high school so that you know what you need to work on. Talk to your teacher or counselor about getting extra help.
Review the application details and requirements by each school.
Every school’s application has different requirements. Make sure you understand them and fill them out correctly. Your teacher or counselor can help.
The Application Process
Keep track of the application deadlines.
Every college and trade school has a date by which you need to apply. Once you have chosen the schools you want to apply to, write the due dates on a calendar. Create a schedule to make sure you have all the things you need by the submission deadline. These things are below.
Take the required standardized test.
While not all colleges require SAT or ACT scores, many do. You will take these tests your senior year or the year before you plan to enter college. Take it early in case you need to retake it to improve your score. Some colleges also require ESL students to take the TOEFL exam, which tests your English language skills.
Write your college entrance essay.
Most schools require admission essays. For each application, make sure you are writing about the correct topic. The application will tell you what to write about. If you can, have a teacher or counselor review your essay before you turn it in.
Get your high school transcripts ready.
Transcripts are records of the classes you took and the grades you earned. Work with your school counselor to send your high school transcripts to the schools you’re applying to.
Complete the application.
Along with all the materials above, you will fill out an application with your personal details, like your date of birth and home address. Most schools require application fees. If you can’t afford the fee, talk to your guidance counselor or ESL teacher about your options.
Most community college have “open admissions,” meaning everyone who turns in all application materials gets in. You will probably find out if you got in quickly. If you applied to a bachelor’s program, you will probably have to wait awhile before you find out if you got into your school. You should hear from colleges by spring, and they will contact you whether or not you got in.
The college application process for students who qualify under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy is mostly the same, but you will need to work even more closely with your teachers and counselors. Learn more about that process in the DACA section below.
How to Apply for Financial Aid
Financial aid is money to pay for college, either money that you need to repay or money that you do not need to repay. This money comes from organizations, schools, or the government, not your family. Most students get some kind of financial aid. Figuring out how to get financial aid can be tough. This section will help guide you through the process.
Federal financial aid is money from the federal government. Many other types of aid, including some scholarships, require you to apply for federal aid because it helps them determine how much money you need. All federal financial aid documents are available in English and Spanish.
A lot of people worry that they can not get aid if their parents are undocumented immigrants or that their parents will be in danger if they apply for it. Your parents’ legal status does not affect whether you can get federal financial student aid. Your parents will not be investigated because you filled out out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)—the application does not ask about citizenship. However, if you are undocumented, you may not be able to get federal financial aid. You need to look at your state’s laws. If you can not get federal aid because of DACA, check out the next section about what DACA students should know about getting financial aid.
If you are not affected by DACA, here are the steps to apply for federal financial aid:
Find out the financial aid deadline for all the schools you’re applying to.
Turn your FAFSA in before those dates. Deadlines are usually in February, but getting it done early will take away some stress.
Prepare all your documents.
To apply, you need the information and materials listed on this page.
Complete your FAFSA form.
All of the details you gathered would be used to complete your FAFSA.
Read your Student Aid Report (SAR).
This electronic document will be sent to you after the FAFSA submission. Make sure that all the information is correct, including the names of the schools you are applying to. If any corrections need to be made, you can do that. Keep this report for your records.
Get financial aid offers.
All the schools you applied to will send you an offer that may include loans, scholarships, grants, Federal Work-Study, and student loans you’re eligible for at their school. Think about which offer works best for your ability to pay for college before choosing a school.
- Loans are money that needs to be paid back. They charge interest, which means you will pay back more than you borrowed. The information can be hard to read and you should ask for help from your teacher or counselor if you need it.
- Scholarships and grants are free money that does not to be repaid unless you do not follow all the rules in their contracts.
- Federal Work-Study is a part-time job offered by your college or at a nearby company.
Accept a financial aid offer.
Once you’ve chosen a school, you can choose to accept its financial aid offer.
You will receive the financial aid.
The financial aid office at the school you will be attending will handle most of the aid you will be receiving. Talk to them about how it works at your school.
Renew your FAFSA form every year.
You need to fill this out every year in order to keep getting aid.
State laws vary on whether DACA students may go to state schools, so you need to research your options. Additionally, DACA students don’t always qualify for in-state tuition.
It’s important to know that colleges and universities can not tell the government or outside people about your immigration status or give them any other personal information. This is a part of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Read on to learn more about how DACA students pay for school.
How to Get Money for College if You’re a DACA Recipient
While DACA students can not always receive federal financial aid, you may be able to get other types of aid. Here are some things to think about while looking for funding.
Find out whether your state offers in-state tuition for DACA recipients.
In-state tuition is the amount of money people who live in the state where the school is located pay for classes. It is usually less than people from other states pay at that school. Some places let DACA students get in-state tuition, but others do not. These states and university systems offer in-state tuition.
Research private scholarships and grants.
Private scholarships and grants are money that comes from companies and organizations to help people pay for school. They have rules you need to follow, but if you follow the rules, you do not need to pay the money back. Some scholarships and grants DACA recipients may be able to get include ones from 10,000 Degrees, Education First, New Leader Scholarships, and TheDream.us Scholarship. You can find out even more about these kinds of scholarships at Edvisors.
Look into school aid.
While you won’t be able to receive federal financial aid, your college or trade school might have aid options.
Think about getting private loans.
Most students in the U.S. pay for their college education through student loans. If you do not qualify for federal loans, you can apply for private loans. Do your research, though, because the loan process and interest rates can be very confusing. Private loans have to be paid back and the interest rates are usually very high. Interest rates are money charged to you because you borrowed the money, based on the amount of money you borrowed.
Get help from your ESL teacher and school counselor.
Your teachers and counselors are a great resource to help you understand how to get financial help.
Tips for Teachers With College-Bound English Language Learners
Teachers can be essential in helping English language learners get to and through college. Here are some tips for how to be the best resource to ELLs as you can.
Be a sounding board and provide guidance.
Showing your support and helping your ELLs talk through their challenges, what they’re looking for, and what they have questions about can help guide how you can support them.
Emphasize skills necessary for college readiness.
This Hamline University study from 2017 shows that while many ESL students felt prepared for college-entrance exams, far fewer felt ready for the college experience itself. Many felt unprepared for the academic culture, the pace of work, homework expectations, student-professor interactions, and ethical academic standards not familiar to them (e.g. plagiarism). By helping to prepare them accordingly and pointing to the resources available to them, they will be a bit more college ready.
Provide additional academic support.
The Hamline University study also reveals that students were unprepared for colleges’ academic expectations. You can help prepare ELLs by providing ample support in English writing and reading. This Internet TESL Journal article and this National Council of Teachers of English article provide suggestions and tools for teaching writing to ESL students to more effectively prepare them for college-level coursework.
Give the appropriate accommodations.
While you still want to ensure your students are college ready, you can employ certain accommodations to assist your students in learning the material.
Teach your student to ask for help.
Your college-bound students likely will still need some accommodations or additional services to help them get through college coursework. By empowering them to advocate for themselves, even if they’re intimidated, you’re helping them build skills that enable them to find the help they need.
Resources to Help ESL Students in Classes
There are some great resources out there to help your ESL students improve their English. Teachers can use these resources as part of the K-12 classroom and parents can work with their kids at home to learn together.
Writing Help for ESL Students
ESL Galaxy Writing
This site provides a list of online writing activities for beginner/elementary and intermediate level students in addition to lesson plan materials and worksheets.
ESL Writing Wizard
Created by an English teacher in Japan, the site lets parents and teachers create their own handwriting practice worksheets for elementary ESL students.
Cambridge English Write & Improve
For more experienced ESL students and upper-level, this site helps improve grammar.
Speaking Help for ESL Students
BBC Learning English
This BBC site offers videos, quizzes, and lesson plans for teachers to help students at all levels improve their English-speaking skills, grammar, and vocabulary.
Studycat offers fun learning resources for families and teachers of younger children to help build skills in English speaking, grammar, and vocabulary.
Voice of America Learning English
This VOA site provides videos for all levels of English speakers to help improve speaking skills.
Math Help for ESL Students
This bilingual site offers tips for math instruction for ESL students.
Dave’s ESL Café
This site provides a variety of math lesson plans that are great for ESL students.
This article lists 20 tools that help support math skills for English language learners.
Science Help for ESL Students
This article focuses on using science to help develop ELL speaking skills.
This site provides a resources about science for ESL students including articles about teaching, classroom teaching strategies, and infographics.
The Sourcebook for Teaching Science
This article highlights best practices and tips for science teachers to utilize when teaching ELL students.
Social Studies/History Help for ESL Students
This page lists great ELL social studies resources for teachers, students, and parents.
ELLs and Social Studies (NYU Steinhardt)
This worksheet offers tips and strategies to teach social studies to ELL students, including lesson plans and resources.
EL Civics for ESL Students
This site is specifically dedicated to civics and history lessons for ESL students including lesson plans, worksheets, and PowerPoint presentations.
Literature Help for ESL Students
One Stop English
This article talks about using literature for English language development, tips and best practices, and resources to help with lesson planning.
This article provides help in using classic literature with ELLs, including five lesson plans that use these important works for English language development.
The Internet TSL Journal
This article provides tips and best practices for using children’s literature with young ESL learners.
Help in Other Classes for ESL Students
This article provides lesson plans and classroom activities to help ESL students develop computer literacy.
This article provides concrete tips on how to utilize art lessons to improve English language skills.
This is a comprehensive resource for teachers to utilize art as a tool for English language learners, providing background research, strategies teachers can use, and project models.
This article provides health literacy resources for ESL students at a variety of age groups.
Resources for Parents of English Language Learners in Kindergarten Through High School
If you are a parent who wants to help your child who is learning English, these can help you do so:
Center for Parent Information & Resources
This site offers tools to help your child learn as well as information about your rights as a parent (offered in Spanish and English).
U.S. Department of Education’s Recursos en Español
This site offers resources in Spanish for parents of ESL students, providing fact sheets and advice for parents of preschoolers through high schoolers.
New York State Education Department
This site offers great resources for parents of English language learners.
This site has tips and tools for reading to elementary students at home, which is a great way for all of you to learn English together.
This article provides suggestions on how parents can work with their children on English language skills.