10 College Admissions Tips for First-Generation College Students

college admissions tips, first-generation college students

Being the first person in your family to attend college is a huge accomplishment. At the same time, first-generation college students face unique challenges as they enter higher education. 

In fact, according to experts, many first-gen students struggle to complete their degree and even end up dropping out of school. This isn’t meant to discourage you from applying to or attending school. Instead, we want to give you the tools to succeed as you enter this next stage of your life! 

If you’re a first-generation college student, have no fear: you can thrive in a college environment. You need to know how to face any academic hurdles that come your way. We’ll show you how.

1. Use Campus Resources Early On

First-gen students should take the time to research campus resources early on in the academic year—especially if you think you might have trouble with classes or other areas of your school life. There are likely great support systems available through your school if you take the time to look into them.

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Many colleges know that first-generation students need help navigating this new chapter in their life. That’s why they set up student organizations, student centers, and other programs tailored for first-gen students. Look online or talk to your academic advisor to see what resources are available.

If you’re struggling to adjust to college life, don’t wait to find these resources. Take action right away so you can get the help you need!

2. Stay Proud of Your First-Gen Identity 

Some students might be embarrassed or ashamed of their background. It’s true that having parents who didn’t attend college could put you at a slight disadvantage. For instance, your family might not be able to give you academic advice or practical tips about college life. Still, this is not something that you should hide or shy away from.

Instead, embrace being a first-gen student. After all, you got here without many of the advantages that children of college graduates enjoy. If you’re open about your identity, you’ll have an easier time finding campus resources to help you. 

If you tell your advisor and other academic professionals on campus that you’re a first-gen student, they can direct you toward the right resources and give you the advice you need to succeed. Other students might be able to help too, but they can only do this if you are honest. 

3. Be Patient with Yourself and Don’t Give Up

As you try to navigate your first semester, it may be easy to get frustrated with yourself. At first, you might not understand what you need to do to succeed, but be patient. You’re making a huge adjustment. 

Many college students are going through the same struggles as you, even if their parents attended college, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Corny as it sounds you, have to believe in yourself and your ability to succeed. 

If you’re overly negative or down on yourself, it’ll make it a lot harder to accomplish your goals. Have confidence in yourself and take the time to recognize how amazing it is that you’ve made it this far.

4. Go to Office Hours

Every college student should take advantage of office hours. While it might be intimidating to meet with your professors or TAs, attending office hours is a great opportunity to ask questions and get one-on-one time with your college professors.  

Office hours will be listed at the beginning of the semester and usually appear on course syllabi. Make sure you write down the times your professor is available, and when you go to office hours, come prepared. Bring up any topics or specific areas you are having issues with. 

We also recommend asking for study tips or any hints for future tests. Your professor will be more likely to help you since you’re willing to meet outside of classroom hours and are making more of an effort to succeed in class.

In recent years, some professors have started referring to their office hours as “drop-in hours,” and it can be helpful to think of office hours in these terms: this is a time to drop in and talk about whatever issues you want to.

5. Join Student Organizations and Participate in Campus Events

Finding on-campus support from advisors, professors, tutors, and other professionals is important. You want to have a strong network of people helping you succeed at school. Still, academics aren’t the only important part of your college life. You also want to stay balanced and try to socialize with your peers. 

This can seem almost impossible, but remember that college isn’t all about work. You also want to forge connections and make memories. One day, you’ll leave college, and you’ll need more than good grades to fall back on.

Having connections from school and being a part of student organizations will make it easier to land jobs and show your personal qualities and strengths. Clubs, networking and other campus events, and other extracurricular opportunities can go a long way. Best of all, you’ll get to meet new people and discover more about yourself. 

6. Take the Initiative in Seeking Out Financial Aid Resources

First-generation college students might not know much about financial aid, and financial aid can be daunting to figure out on your own, especially since your parents don’t have any experience with FAFSA and other student aid resources. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities to learn more available to you. We especially suggest looking up scholarships and grants aimed specifically at first-gen students. 

You can also look at FASFA’s website if you need help filling out your forms, or you can contact your school’s financial aid office for assistance. Don’t miss out on any aid packages, and make sure you’re taking advantage of the aid offered to you.  

7. Ask for Help if You Need It

A lot of students are afraid to ask for help, even when they need it. This is a mistake you don’t want to make as a first-generation student. If you’re struggling with school, mental health issues, or other problems, don’t deal with them alone. 

Not only are there great resources on campus that can help you, but your friends and family can also help support you if you’re struggling. Dealing with any challenges early on will make your time on campus better, and asking for help doesn’t have to be embarrassing. It’s an opportunity for you to touch base with your support system and see how you can make improvements to your life. 

8. Find Balance inside and outside the Classroom

Some first-gen students want to do it all. Of course, college is a time to be adventurous and ambitious. You want to take this opportunity to really explore who you are and what your strengths may be. Still, don’t overload yourself with too many commitments. 

It’s great to have a job, attend lots of events, join student organizations, and take tons of classes you’re interested in. Students can get a tremendous amount out of their college experience, but you don’t want to spread yourself thin. 

Make sure you have enough time to get all your schoolwork done and have a balanced life outside the classroom. Finding this balance isn’t always easy, but it’s possible with planning and patience.

9. The Department Head Isn’t in Charge; Their Admin Is

Once you’ve committed to a major, you may need to access departmental resources to reserve rooms, schedule events, or organize workgroups. Having a personal connection in the department can help you accomplish overcome these logistical hurdles.

You might think that the person with the most power to help you is the person whose name is at the top of the faculty roster: the department head. You’d almost certainly be wrong. It’s the departmental admin.

Make friends with your department’s administrative assistant (sometimes titled the departmental secretary), because they’re the person in charge of all the practical details of running the department. Be kind to them, learn their name, send them a card for Christmas and flowers on their birthday. There will come a day when you need to find an obscure form and have it filled out pronto, and you want to make sure the one person who understands how the century-old filing cabinet at the back of the office is organized is willing to carve some time out of their day to lend you a hand.

10. Don’t Tuck That Towel; Fold It

Finally—and most importantly—if you’re going to be living in a dorm, you’re about to spend an unprecedented amount of time walking semi-publicly to and from the dorm showers wearing little more than flip-flops and a towel. You may think that the best way to secure that towel is to tuck the outer corner inside the towel’s upper lip. You’d be dead wrong.
Instead, wrap the towel around yourself, and then fold the entire upper edge of the towel down, as if you’re cuffing a pair of pants, but upside down. It’s way more secure.

Trust us: you’re gonna use this advice more than all the other suggestions combined!

We at HelloCollege aim to help you get the most out of your university preparations. For more information about paying for college, and choosing a major that will aid in helping pay back student loans contact us.

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The Hello College Team

HelloCollege CEO Andrea Emmons has spent the last 15 years guiding students and families across the country on their path to college. Andrea knows the profound impact proactive college planning has on the lives of students and is passionate about mentoring families through the process.
Kevin Krebs - Founder of HelloCollege

About Our Founder

Kevin Krebs

Inspired by his parents, Kevin’s journey from a first-gen, diverse, low-income background to Northwestern University shaped him. After experiencing challenges, including student loan debt, he founded HelloCollege and has spent the last 25 years helping students successfully navigate college admissions.

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