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The College Transition Guide for ESL Students How to Prepare for College, Get into College & Thrive as a Student

Roughly 4.6 million English language learners attended U.S. public schools in 2014-15 and, while many of these students have the English skills needed for everyday life, some lack the language proficiency to get into college. Or they may have misconceptions about college so aren’t even thinking about going. But many of these students have the drive and ability to do well in higher education – they just need the right information, support, and tools to get there. ESL/ELL students can find those resources in this guide. Read on to learn more.

Meet the Expert

Elisia Howard Certified College Counselor at College Insight and former ESL teacher

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Who Are ESL/ELL Students?

In general, school systems define English as a Second Language (ESL) students and English Language Learners (ELL) as those who are new to the United States, are non-native English speakers and are currently learning the language. These students account for nearly 10% of all public school attendees and that number is expected to grow in the coming years. ESL/ELL students are a diverse group – some may have parents who relocated for work, while others may have fled genocide in their home country. Still others may have been brought here as children and are now considered DREAMers.

Why College Matters

ESL students – like all other learners – want to provide for themselves and their families. The reality is that individuals with a college degree earn significantly more than those who only finish high school. A 2016 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that those with a high school diploma brought home a median weekly wage of $679 in the first quarter of 2016, while those with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,155 during the same timeframe. When considered across a year of working, those with a high school diploma earned just over $35,000 and those with a baccalaureate earned $60,000.

Common Barriers for ESL/ELL Students

Regardless of how long ESL/ELL students have been in America and enrolled in language-learning classes, these students face unique barriers at every step of their academic journey. “One of the biggest barriers ESL students face is a lack of understanding of the U.S. university system, how rankings work, and how to strategize their applications,” says former ESL teacher Elisia Howard. “Students need help figuring out which college will help them achieve their goals while also offering a positive college experience.”

Preparing for college

Many ESL/ELL students are the first in their families to have the opportunity to attend college, but because other family members didn’t, they may not even have their sights set on college. Those that do, likely have no idea how to make it happen. Colorín Colorado, a bilingual site for educators and families of PreK-12 English language learners, notes that these students may not understand what schools are looking for in terms of standardized test scores and GPAs, aren’t familiar with the different types of colleges (two-year vs. four-year, private vs. public), and sometimes don’t even understand that they should aim for college since it hasn’t been emphasized in their home lives.

Native-born English speakers can struggle through the college application process, so it’s not surprising that ESL/ELL students feel overwhelmed by the many steps involved. But these students also tend to face other obstacles – misconception about college, a lack of financial support, an inability to write a strong admissions essay, or self-doubt. One of the most stressful barriers is the one undocumented students face when trying to explain why they haven’t provided supplemental materials such as family income and a social security number.

While ESL/ELL students should have done their research while applying to schools, the ultimate test comes when deciding which one to attend. Because their reading, grammar and writing skills may not be on par with native English speaking peers, they may struggle with their course load if they choose a school that doesn’t offer services and support mechanisms tailored to their specific needs. If they don’t have transportation of their own, getting to and from college from an off-campus residence could also be problematic. Lastly, students who are undocumented face an additional step when it comes to financial aid – they’ll need to find out whether prospective colleges offer scholarships or grants and whether their immigration status affects their ability to receive institutional aid.

Applying and being accepted to a college is a great achievement for any learner, but especially those who face additional language barriers. But to be successful in college, ESL/ELL students must tackle additional obstacles once they reach campus. Some may come from low-income families and have to work multiple jobs while in college, while others may feel overwhelmed by the cultural differences and question if they truly belong. For non-traditional/adult students, a lack of childcare could also present challenges.

Preparing for College

Many bright and motivated ESL/ELL students never get the chance to apply, much less attend, college for reasons ranging from lack of encouragement and information to misperceptions about the application process and financial aid. While most students will likely rely heavily on teachers/administrators/counselors to help and guide them, there are ways these students can be proactive to position themselves for college.

  • Find out why college is such a big deal

    Earning a college degree can help you land a higher-paying job, but that’s not the only reason why it’s important. College is also a place to expand your horizons and to learn about yourself and the world around you. As one teacher points out, though, many ESL students don’t think of college that way. Ask yourself, “what does a normal day in college look like?” If you aren’t sure how to answer this, find out. Talk to teachers and ask about their college experiences. Find out why they went to college and what they liked about it. If their responses get you excited, it’s time you start envisioning college as part of your future.

  • Understand the requirements

    Students who don’t come from families that attended college are often unfamiliar with the basic application requirements, such as standardized tests (ACT/SAT, SAT Subject Tests), having a certain GPA, or getting letters of recommendation. ESL/ELL students interested in pursuing a college education should look at a few colleges to get a sense of the application process and what is required. Our First Generation College Student Guide also provides a helpful timeline and other information to get ESL/ELL students started on their college journey.

  • Learn about your options

    The beauty of the American higher education system is that it offers many different paths to learning after high school. Some students may be best suited to a traditional four-year degree program, while others may benefit more from a certification or degree earned at a two-year community college or vocational/trade school. By exploring these different options and comparing them to personal goals and interests, ESL/ELL students can better plan for their futures.

  • Take additional classes

    ESL/ELL students typically have the English skills needed to succeed in everyday life by the time they reach college, but that doesn’t mean they have the advanced skills needed for the rigors of postsecondary education. In addition to taking additional reading, writing, and grammar classes, a report by Vanderbilt University’s Migration Policy Institute found that ESL students who enrolled in dual-credit programs – programs that allowed them to earn high school and college-level credit at the same time – were far more likely to enroll in college after high school than those who simply took AP classes.

  • Seek encouragement and support

    Any student can feel overwhelmed by all that goes into preparing for college, but those who aren’t familiar with the educational system and whose first language isn’t English can experience even higher levels of stress. The good news is that high schools have guidance and college counselors on-staff to help with the process. And don’t forget that there are other forms of support and encouragement outside of the high school halls. “One of the biggest mistakes foreign students make is not being involved in activities outside school,” says Howard. “Many are so concerned about their grades that they miss character and leadership development opportunities like playing on sports teams or volunteering.”

  • Include your parents

    Parents want the best for the children and will do whatever it takes to see them succeed, but immigrant families are often unsure how to help or what to do. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, 65% of ESL students and their families said they didn’t know how to complete the Free Application for Student Aid. Even if your parents don’t speak English (or don’t speak it well), encourage them to attend school meetings, college fairs and community workshops about preparing for college and translate for them so they understand what needs to be done and can offer help when you need it.


Applying to College

Applying to college is a multi-step process that takes lots of planning and concentrated focus. For ESL/ELL students who are completely unfamiliar with the process, it can be mysterious, confusing and frustrating. While it’s important to get guidance from teachers and college counselors, it’s also crucial for students to do their own research to understand what stands between them and higher education. Steps to keep in mind include:

  • Ask yourself the important questions

    What are your career goals? What are your interests? Do you want to stay close to home or venture further away? Do you want an urban or rural setting? Is cost a factor? Do the colleges you’re considering offer a degree that will help you achieve your career goals? Do you need to work on your English more before applying? All of these are questions that college-bound ESL/ELL students should ask themselves before starting the process.

  • Make a list of prospective schools

    After self-reflection to answer the questions above, students need to narrow their options to 5-10 schools that meet their criteria. Review the application process for each, create a checklist of requirements and get started on checking them off.

  • Take standardized tests

    Most colleges require ACT or SAT exam scores so they can gauge students’ readiness for college. Students should read about both exams to figure out which one best showcases their strengths. Once they’ve decide which exam to take, start studying and prepping for the big day. Those who are particularly worried about their English, writing and math skills may want to consider working with a tutor.

  • Ask for letters of recommendation

    Common references include teachers, principals, guidance counselors or other adults who can speak to your skills, discipline, motivation and what you’ll bring to a college. Ask early – it’s important to give your references ample time to write a thoughtful letter.

  • Write the essay

    Almost every college requires an essay response to a list of questions or prompts, and students need to spend sufficient time on these. When answering questions, remember to reflect on how your unique experience as an ESL/ELL student sets you apart. And if your English needs a little work, have multiple teachers review your essay and be prepared to do a few re-writes. (Don’t worry, even native speakers have to do this.)

  • Collect other relevant documents

    Depending on the college, students likely need to submit additional documents, such as high school transcripts, a list of extracurriculars, medical records, and a photo ID.

  • Send in your applications

    Some colleges have rolling deadlines while others have a hard cutoff. Create a calendar of all the deadlines (and how the applications must be received) so you don’t miss any.

  • Apply for federal financial aid

    Students and their families can complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid starting January 1 of the year they plan to start school. Because funds are given on a first-come-first-serve basis, the sooner you get your application in, the better. Undocumented ESL/ELL students are not eligible for federal financial aid, but other aid – scholarships, grants, institutional aid – may be available to qualifying students.


Choosing a College

Once acceptance letters start coming in, students need to take a close look at the services offered at a college to ensure they’ll have the support and resources needed for a smooth transition to college life. When choosing a college carefully review the following:

  • Support services

    When looking for support services, it’s best to do a survey of schools to get a sense of what may be available. Modesto Junior College has an English Language Learner Welcome Center to help with enrollment problems, course registration, advising and orientation. The University of Minnesota offers editors and proofreaders to ensure ESL students improve their writing skills. “ESL students should look for colleges that work with them while they are learning English,” says Howard. “The professors should be willing to work with them if they need extra help, or there should be a tutoring center that’s aligned with the curriculum.”

    But support services also go beyond academics. Some ESL/ELL students may experience culture shock and may struggle to fit in or find a sense of community. Look for colleges that can help you overcome these emotional challenges, should they occur. Support can come in the form of student groups/clubs, peer-to-peer mentoring programs, sports activities, dance clubs, or even just dormitory get-togethers.

  • Transportation

    Many ESL students don’t have transportation of their own, so it’s important to pick a school that is either close to public transportation or has their own. While students enrolled at NYU don’t need to consider transport, those at a rural school do. Carlton College provides a good example of how schools can help – the campus bus provides free rides to popular spots around town for students to shop, buy groceries and eat out. Transportation is also important to think about when students are deciding how far away from home they want to be.

  • Funding

    Because undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid, it’s important to find a school that believes in and supports this student population. Trinity Washington University, Arizona State University, and Community College of Denver are just a few examples of schools that go above and beyond to ensure financial barriers don’t stop these students from getting an education.

Bridge Programs

  • What are bridge programs?

    Bridge programs are offered by colleges and were designed specifically for ESL students. They help students master the English language while also introducing them to the norms and expectations of American colleges. Program length depends on the student’s individual needs, but most are less than one year, and must be completed before the student begins their degree program at the college.

  • Who are bridge programs for?

    The majority are for college-bound ESL/ELL students or international students who want to improve their English skills before formally enrolling in a study abroad program.

  • What are the benefits?

    In addition to helping incoming ESL/ELL and international students further develop their language skills, bridge programs give students the chance to meet and interact with other students as well as faculty. This can help foster a sense of community before fully launching into college.

  • How do they work?

    Each program is different, but the majority require students to take several English classes that count toward undergraduate degree requirements. Students live at the school full-time, eating meals in the cafeteria, learning about campus programs and participating in classes. Once they’ve successfully completed the program, students can begin their freshman year at the college.

Examples of ESL bridge programs:

  • Lane Community College

    This Oregon-based community college offers an ESL to Credit Bridge program that includes an intensive ESL program, completion of 8-14 transferable credits and small class sizes so learners don’t feel intimidated to engage and ask questions. The program lasts a full semester and students must earn at least a B grade to graduate. Resident students pay between $410 and $1,127, but scholarships are available to help offset costs.

  • The University of Colorado at Boulder

    The ESL Academic Bridge Program at UCB lasts 6-12 months and prepares ESL students to meet English language proficiency requirements. In addition to undertaking English coursework, students also attend workshops, events and activities to ensure a smooth transition into UCB academic and university life. Tuition ranges between $6,600 and $13,200 but financial aid is available.

  • Worchester State University

    WSU’s Bridge-to-University Program further develops ESL/ELL students’ English language fluency and familiarizes them with the nuances of college learning. Offered full-time, students take ESL and regular college credits. While enrolled, students receive individualized support and are taught practical skills, including how to interact with professors and turn in homework. Students can take a maximum of 18 credits over four semesters.

Being Successful in College

After years of planning, overcoming barriers and making decisions, what happens after a student arrives at college? College presents many opportunities to learn and grow, but it can also be stressful for any student. Below are nine tips to help ESL/ELL students be successful:

  • Make friends with students from other cultures

    Elisia taught ESL and international students for more than a decade, and during that time, she consistently encouraged her students to branch out. “One of the things I always told my students was to make friends with others who aren’t from their home country,” she recalls. “As my students started engaging with other international learners and Americans, their English became fluent and they were able to enjoy their experience more.”

  • Get to know your professors

    Professors are far more likely to provide extra support and empathy if they have a sense of who you are and how hard you’re working. You don’t need to share your whole life story, but make it a point to speak with them after class or during office hours – this allows you to create a genuine relationship while also demonstrating your commitment to doing well in their class.

  • Ask questions if you aren’t sure

    Many ESL/ELL students can read English, but listening can prove much more difficult, or vice versa. If your teacher or an advisor says something and you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask what they meant. It’s far better to ask questions than to assume and turn in an incorrect assignment.

  • Find out about tutoring

    Many, if not all, colleges offer academic tutoring, and many even have writing centers to help students outline papers, find resources and ensure they’re using proper, academic English. Find out where tutoring is located on your campus and drop in whenever you need some extra help.

  • Partner with another student

    In addition to making a new friend, partnering with a fellow student is a great way to share notes, discuss concepts and study for upcoming quizzes and exams.

  • Don’t take on too much

    Lots of freshmen hit the ground running their first semester, taking 15 or more academic credits while also balancing extracurriculars, clubs and social life. But most ESL/ELL students are better off if they start slow and then branch out once they’ve found a good rhythm and feel confident about their mastery of English. As Americans say, don’t try to run before you can walk.

  • Ask professors for supplemental materials

    Detailed notes taken by students are important in the learning and studying process, but materials from professors can be even more beneficial. In addition to handouts given to the class, ask the professor if they’re willing to share PowerPoint slides or if they have recommendations for supplemental materials.

  • Balance school and work

    Lots of ESL/ELL students feel pressure to work while in school – either to support themselves or their families – but remember that the reason you’re in college is to gain an education. If your schoolwork is suffering due to a job, cut back on your hours and refocus. If you absolutely need to work, talk to your family or employer to see if you can work out a solution that helps ease the pressure.

  • Find out about childcare

    If you’re an adult ESL/ELL learner with children, find out whether your college offers childcare services and, if so, when they’re available. Students who are unsure what to look for can check out examples from South Seattle College and Herkimer College.

How to Overcome Language Barriers When Studying Abroad

ESL/ELL students aren’t the only non-native speakers who struggle with English and transitioning to college life. International students studying abroad in the U.S. often face similar challenges but have a limited amount of time to overcome them. Below are a few tips to help ESL/ELL students from abroad overcome language and cultural obstacles.

  • Make American friends

    The reassurance and calm that comes from interacting with fellow international students can be comforting – especially when you’re homesick – but hanging out with students from your home country won’t ease language and cultural barriers and somewhat defeats the purpose of you studying abroad. Embrace your American experience by making new American friends.

  • Find fun ways to learn the language and culture

    Sitting in an English class for even an hour can feel mentally draining for international students who have to work hard to keep up with what’s happening. But all learning doesn’t have to happen in the classroom. Try participating in movie nights, book clubs or other events that require you to use English in a fun and exciting way.

  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself

    In the same way that international countries have encountered Americans who butchered the pronunciation of a word in their language, at some point it will happen to you while studying in the U.S. The best approach in these situations is to simply laugh and realize that mistakes are just a part of the learning process.

  • Share your culture with others

    In addition to most of your American peers not knowing your language, they likely don’t know much about your culture, either. Breaking down barriers is a two-way street, so consider inviting new friends over and cooking one of your favorite meals from home or playing a game that’s popular where you’re from.

  • Remember why you’re here

    In addition to learning the curriculum, many international students come to America to experience the culture and make new friends. Earn good grades, but don’t get so focused on learning that you don’t interact with others or explore your temporary home away from home.

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