Important things to know as a first generation college student


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It’s a common cliche that parents want their kids to walk in their shoes and end up in the same career as they did. But a lot of parents may want more for their kids than this—they want their kids to achieve more, aim higher.

Being a first-generation college student is something to be proud of, but it can also be nerve-wracking. There might be high expectations that come with being the first in the family to attend school that add to the normal stress of attending college.

On top of that, there’s the fact that if nobody else in the family has done it yet, there are no family members to give advice, none to provide guidance. But there are ways to thrive as a first-generation college student. It’s a big deal to be the first one in a family to attend college, and getting prepared can help lessen the stress and pressure.

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Challenges of Being a First-Generation Student

So, what is a first-generation college student? Being a first-generation college student means the student’s parents either did not earn a college degree or did not go to college at all. Since their parents may not understand much of the college experience, these students are embarking on a somewhat unknown path, which can lead to challenges that other students don’t face.

Lacking this direct source of advice can affect the student’s ability to complete school. It may be more difficult for a first-generation student to adequately prepare for college, both financially and socially. College can be stressful, and without a support system that understands these experiences the student may find it difficult to continue with school.

Some first-generation students may have other demographic characteristics, such as low economic status or low enrollment intensity (generally, being enrolled in a less than full-time course load), that also increase their risk of not finishing college. The usual stressors of college are enough to make it a challenging experience for anybody, but first-gen students may find these factors make it even more difficult.

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Navigating Financial Aid

Another factor that makes being a first-gen student difficult is not understanding the financial aid system. Students whose parents have gone to college may be more familiar with the process of applying for aid and looking for scholarships and grants.

If first-generation students are already from a lower socioeconomic background as well as being the first person in their family to go to college, the financial strain could be more difficult to manage than it is for others.

There are other reasons that first-gen students may have difficulty completing their four-year degrees: They may be less prepared for the rigorous academics at the college level, they could be working full-time jobs, or they could have children.

First-generation college students can still be successful despite these additional difficulties. With the proper preparation and support, they can not only achieve their four-year degrees, but thrive in college.

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Thriving in College

The saying “C’s get degrees!” describes students who get by in college by simply passing their classes, not looking to achieve anything other than that piece of paper at the end of it all. But if you’re a first-generation student looking to thrive in college—instead of simply surviving it—then here are some tips for you.

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1. Study Tips

If students want to crush their academics, instead of being crushed by them, proper study techniques will be necessary. The lessons will be more difficult in college, and students have to depend more on their own self-discipline more than they did in high school. If it’s been a while since students have been in school, implementing good techniques and habits could help them adjust to the work again.

Here are some study tips that may help first-generation students adapt to college-level learning:

  • Picking a consistent study location, one that is comfortable and free of distractions. Once you’ve found the perfect spot, you might consider studying there consistently.
  • Writing down deadlines and important dates in a planner may help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and being caught by surprise when deadlines are approaching.
  • Scheduling consistent study times instead of cramming the night before an exam has been proven to be a better method of remembering subjects for the long term.
  • Finding a study group may make it easier to learn more difficult material.
  • Reviewing notes each day can help you remember them.
  • If you’re struggling with a certain class, asking professors for help during their office hours or seeking out available tutoring services on campus may help you understand the subject better.

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2. Building Relationships

The connections you make while in college can become invaluable after graduation. Getting to know professors and classmates can not only provide a source of social support during the stressful college years but may also provide opportunities for future networking.

Most professors will have regular office hours they’re available to meet with students. These office hours can be used to talk about class material, to get to know your professor better, or to get their advice on your future. Usually, professors are happy to help students excel in class or discover the next steps in their journey.

Taking the time to get to know your classmates is also beneficial. When students make connections in class this helps give them support. Classmates can take notes for each other when someone needs to miss class, they can study together, and assist each other in the post-graduation job hunt.

Befriending classmates will not only provide academic support, but emotional support, too. Nobody understands what a college student is going through as well as another college student.

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3. Avoiding Avoidance

Students who are juggling work, family, and school may feel overwhelmed by their college workload. Planning ahead and staying organized can help the student stay successful in school despite these extra responsibilities.

First-gen students could benefit from keeping a planner and scheduling study sessions ahead of time so they don’t fall into the trap of ineffective, last-minute cram sessions.

Staying ahead of schedule can also help in case other problems arise. Students who are parents might have child-related reasons for missing a class, but if they have assignments started ahead of time and are already on top of their study schedule, the absence will be less likely to negatively impact their grades.

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4. Paying for College

College costs are an important piece of attending college, and it’s good to start planning as soon as possible. First-generation students may not have any immediate family members who have been through the process, possibly making information on how to pay for college more difficult to come by. There are a variety of ways students can finance college, with grants, loans, and scholarships available to eligible students.

The first step to financing your college education is filling out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This application will determine a student’s eligibility to receive federal aid for college. Federal aid can be both grants or loans. Federal grants usually don’t need to be repaid, but federal loans do.

The first step to financing your college education is filling out the FAFSA®.

Students must be able to demonstrate financial need to receive most federal aid, along with meeting other eligibility requirements .

If students are not eligible for federal aid, or if the federal aid they receive isn’t enough to cover all their costs, they might also consider applying for scholarships, which are available through different sources such as a student’s school, community organizations, or corporations. Eligibility varies for each one. Some scholarships are need-based, whereas some are merit-based. There are also scholarships available specifically for first-generation college students .

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Private Loans

Another option available for financing college is private student loans. The eligibility for private student loans is based on a student’s credit history, income, and other factors. Federal loans come with benefits that are not usually available with private loans, so it’s recommended that students exhaust all federal aid options before considering a private loan.

The terms of private student loans will vary at each financial institution, so students are encouraged to do thorough research before choosing a lender.

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