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5+ Tips for First-Generation College Students

5+ Tips for First-Generation College Students
Thursday, March 18, 2021
Posted in category Learners by

First-generation college students generally face more obstacles to graduation than their peers. Most have the academic skills to succeed but lack the information or support that others with parental experience to lean on or a higher socioeconomic status have. Facing additional challenges does mean you’ll have more to overcome, but it does not mean you can’t succeed. This article outlines some tips that will help you do just that!

What is a First-Generation College Student?

Before we dive into our tips for first-generation students, let’s start by defining who is considered a first-generation college student. First-generation students can be defined differently by different institutions, but a common definition is a student whose biological parents have not attained a four-year college degree, as described by the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

First-generation students face unique obstacles, including not knowing how the systems within a college work, that you’ll want to fill out financial aid forms and how to do so, when to reach out to professors for help, how to juggle your work life with your course load, and possibly even how to balance your new life as a college student with your family life when your family may or may not be supportive of your college experience. This article from GreatSchools outlines many of these challenges, and the tips below provide guidance to help you overcome them.

1. Selecting a College

Choosing a college as a first-generation student may be the first real challenge you face. Evaluating schools, navigating the application process, writing college application essays, and paying the application fees all present obstacles. Your parents may not be able to help you decide which colleges may be a good fit for you, but your high school counselor should be able to. Talk to a trusted counselor that can help you determine which schools might be a good fit for your needs. For help with the applications process, you’ll again want to talk to your high school counselors but admissions advisors at the college(s) you’re applying to can also help.

2. Academic Support for First-Generation Students

The next tip is to seek out academic support. Some first-generation college students are disappointed by their grades the first semester. Lower than expected grades can sometimes point not to a lack of studying or academic merit, but instead to a difficult adjustment period. Finding your place on campus takes time and navigating the college environment requires knowledge of how the systems on campus work, which you won’t have right away. It is more important in your first semester than ever to lean on resources like your academic advisor. If they don’t have the answers to all your questions, they should know where you can go to find them. They want to see you succeed but don’t always know how to help unless you ask.

You’ll also want to be sure you’re talking to your professors. Some new college students worry about when and how to approach professors for help. Go to your professor’s office hours, ask them your questions, or even if you don’t have specific questions, talk with them about the subject matter of the course. You can even run topics for upcoming papers by them or receive feedback about assignments before they’re due. Professors are there to help, so don’t skip out on this resource.

Many colleges also offer free tutoring services to students and have a writing center that can provide help with papers. Your tuition dollars pay for these services, so there’s no reason not to use them to your advantage. While your professors are great for questions about specific assignments or topic questions, more general services like tutoring and a writing center can provide you detailed advice to improve your overall writing, test-taking, or study skills and can help you work through specific assignments and papers. The skills you pick up from these sessions will likely be helpful in future courses as well!

Another often overlooked resource on college campuses is the library. The library website and its physical collection of books and resources can help you not only with finding research materials for your courses but can also provide free access to books you want to read for fun or on topics you’re not discussing in any classes. Many also have magazines, movies, audiobooks, and more (tip: while the selection of your college library will be mainly focused on academic study, check out the local public library for a wider selection – some even have materials like videogames for checkout). Libraries also offer free internet connections and access to printing services. The most valuable resource, however, may be the college librarians. You can usually contact a librarian through email, chat services, telephone, or in person. Librarians can help you with research projects and assignments, help you understand how to find sources for your papers, and even provide guidance on things like formatting citations.

3. Connect with Others

Get involved on campus. Sometimes first-generation students question whether they belong in their college community. You do! Getting involved, if possible, in college clubs, teams, student organizations, and events can help you connect with other students and generate that sense of belonging. Some colleges may even have groups for first-generation college students to connect with one another. Check your college’s website for a list of clubs and organizations you could explore.

4. Make Professional Connections

Time invested in making professional connections can help you while in college and set you up for success after graduating. Professionals working in the career you want to enter can help you in several ways. They can help you determine whether that career field will be a good fit for you at a time when you’ll still be able to easily switch paths if you change your mind. If you find that you still want to enter that career field, they may be able to help you find an internship to start gaining experience and even earning income in your chosen field. These connections as well as experience in the field will both increase your chances of success in finding a position in your field once you’ve graduated (or even before you’ve officially got your degree). Your academic advisors, professors, and campus networking events may all be great resources to help you start making these connections with others. Also, explore professional organizations related to your chosen career. Many offer free or reduced membership fees to students, have mentorship programs, provide scholarships, or may offer free or discounted admission to conferences (some even have travel scholarships so all your expenses to attend a conference could be covered).

5. Financial Aid for First-Generation Students

One of the first challenges you’ll face as a college student is navigating the process of finding financial aid. You can check out your college’s website for guidance and helpful resources on how to do this. Your best resource, however, will be your college’s financial aid advisors. They will be aware of any scholarships or grants available specifically for first-generation students and can help you with the application process. Always remember to submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on time every year. The FAFSA helps determine what types of federal financial aid you qualify for and how much you might receive.

Final Tips

The unique needs of first-generation college students are being recognized more often and by more institutions. Your college may have a webpage of resources just for first-generation students, advisors or mentors specifically for first-generation students, or even guides made by first-generation college students for first-generation college students outlining specific resources on your college campus (everything from where to get help writing a paper to where to get free food). The bottom line is, if you have a question, ask it. If you’re not sure who to ask, ask your academic advisor. If they don’t have an answer, they can usually point you in the right direction. Your college wants to see you graduate, and the resources there will do all they can to help you succeed.

Knowledge to Work’s Educational Tools for Students may be another resource that is helpful to you throughout your educational journey. Its Career Pathways Explorer can help you determine the career path that would be the best fit for you and provide you information about the types of educational requirements needed for a job in that field. Knowledge to Work’s Learning Resources Search can help you locate free learning resources you can use to master the topics in your courses. You can even sign up for a free account to create a personalized learning plan based on your educational goals and career goals. focuses on work-based learning so learners can focus their time on learning the exact skills employers are looking for and increase their chances of success on the job market. Read the Knowledge to Work for Learners and for Students articles to learn more.

Additional Resources

The learning resources below have been developed to help students navigate the college environment and to balance college with personal wellbeing. Check them out to learn more (they’re free!):


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