The College Transition Guide for ESL Students

By Staff Writers

Published on September 16, 2021

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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.

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.”

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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.

Resources

Colorín Colorado helps students and teachers alike understand what ELL students face when preparing for college and how to overcome obstacles. This article provides insider tips on what students need to know, how their ELL teacher can help and how to get through the application process. This guide by the Center for Applied Linguistics is especially helpful to learners who took time off between high school and college. This academic piece from the University of South Alabama gives students an idea of the level of writing they’ll be expected to have in college and how to get there. Language Magazine highlights some of the common barriers students from this population face while also providing research on what it takes to succeed. The United Federation of Teachers provides this guide to ESL educators, but some of the topics are also relevant to students. Prepared by College Board, this guide is helpful to all first-generation students, including ESL/ELL students.

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:

Resources

Use this guide from PrepScholar to learn tips and tricks for acing the ACT even if English isn’t your first language. PrepScholar provides this complete expert guide that outlines all the steps students are likely to encounter during the admissions process. Wondering what sort of additional requirements you may encounter when applying? Check out Seattle University’s application checklist to get a general idea. (Note, requirements may be slightly different for other colleges.) This publication from the University of Arkansas provides a fascinating glimpse of the common mistakes non-native English speaking applicants makes and how to avoid them. This article provides a list of common mistakes that non-native English speakers make on their college admissions exam and how to avoid them. Magoosh has lots of helpful tips for ESL/ELL students who are nervous about taking the SAT. There are many organizations like EBS United that help bilingual students pay for college through scholarships. The Department of Education provides this helpful checklist.

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:

Bridge Programs

Examples of ESL bridge programs:

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:

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.

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