5 Success Tips for First-Generation College Students

Being a first-generation college student can be challenging. Tap into these campus resources and academic tips to boost your chances for college success.
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  • First-generation learners account for more than 40% of all college students.
  • Scholarships for first-gen students and other campus resources can offer support.
  • Mentors and professors can provide guidance for many first-generation college students.
  • Managing stress and imposter syndrome is a common challenge among students.

First-generation students — students whose immediate family members did not earn four-year degrees — face unique challenges in college. Finding the right conditions to support your college experience can improve your chances of success along the way.

Despite any challenges ahead, Dr. Matt Newlin — a first-generation college graduate and higher education consultant — offers an important reminder. "Be proud of yourself! Colleges are not designed for first-generation students, but YOU made it. That is a huge accomplishment of which you should be proud."

Stepping into a college environment can prove difficult for many students, regardless of family background. Understanding the college admissions process, building self-confidence, feeling academically ready, and experiencing campus life can be challenging for first-generation college students.

The information and tips in this article can help you on your path toward college success.

Campus Resources for First-Gen Students

"An increasing number of institutions have developed or are currently developing first-generation student programming and resources, so be sure to find out if your college has a program or office dedicated to first-gen students," offers Dr. Newlin.

Many schools offer student services like academic advising and career support. Your school may also offer mentorship opportunities or mental health care. These services can help you get the most from your college experience.

Dr. Newlin also advises first-generation students to "take advantage of academic support resources like tutoring, writing centers, test preparation, etc." He notes, "These are services that you're paying for via your tuition, so be sure you're utilizing any resource that can help you academically."

Check with your school's financial aid office to find out whether it offers scholarships for first-generation students or grants to support tuition expenses. Some schools give especially generous financial aid packages that reduce out-of-pocket expenses.

Colleges may also offer work-study programs — on- and off-campus jobs for students with financial needs — to earn extra money for school expenses. Finding the right work-study job that aligns with your class and study schedules is important for achieving academic success.

Academic Advisors Boost First-Gen Students' Success

Academic advisors provide information about course registration and class selection, guide students toward academic resources, and connect students with campus services. College admissions offices typically offer academic advising. Consider connecting with an advisor before classes begin to best understand all available resources.

College mentors also assist first-generation students. Mentors can help students identify their academic or career goals and offer guidance to reach those goals. Advisors and mentors can help you prepare for success before the first day of class by ensuring you can access all necessary services.

It is such an honor to represent my family as the first member to attend college. I tried very hard in high school and persevered, against all odds, to make it where I am today. I was fortunate to be part of the Student ACES program. The staff at the nonprofit — with the mission to inspire and develop high school student-athletes to become men and women of honor, character, and integrity — supported me in the admissions process and throughout high school to stay on track. To this day, while in school, they still support me.

— Tajelia Green, First-Generation College Student at Florida A&M
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Dr. Newlin advises, "If you're not passionate about the courses you're taking or the field you're in, you're likely not going to do as well. Talk with an academic advisor, career counselor, or faculty member to make sure you're exploring ALL of the careers and majors in your areas of interest before deciding on one."

Some schools automatically assign first-year students an advisor or mentor. Students can learn about their school's academic support options online or by connecting directly with the student services department.

College Professors Provide Academic Support

First-generation students may find it helpful to receive direct support from their teachers. Professors can help students understand the syllabus, navigate rigorous coursework, provide feedback on assignments and exams, offer time management tips, and provide general tips for success in their classes.

Professors often host office hours, dedicated times for students to ask questions or receive academic support for a specific class. During office hours, students can also get to know their professors and build professional relationships with them.

Dr. Newlin suggests, "You should get to know your professors every semester. Developing a relationship with faculty — even in large, 300-person lecture hall classes — is critical. Faculty are much more likely to be understanding and flexible if they know you as an individual."

He continues, "Early in the semester, introduce yourself and share something unique so they can remember you. This will help you not only in that course, but in future courses or when searching for jobs and internships."

Professors are great resources for writing letters of recommendation, making networking connections, and providing academic mentorship. Building relationships with your professors can open doors for these additional opportunities.

Managing Stress as a First-Gen College Student

Stressors for some first-generation college students, and students overall, include pressure from family members, self-doubt or imposter syndrome, and managing new environments.

As a first-generation student, it is hard to communicate with family, and even friends, about some of the challenges I face as they do not understand it because they have not lived it.

— Tajelia Green, First-Generation College Student at Florida A&M
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Coping with stress in college is difficult for many students. Finding ways to boost your confidence, manage your needs, and receive support is important. A new college environment often requires adjusting to new schedules, living arrangements, or peer connections. Making friends in college can decrease stress, and help you grow your network.

Locating on- or off-campus mental health support can help you connect with individuals who better understand your experience as a first-generation student. Mental health professionals, peer support groups, books, and online apps are great resources to help you manage stress in college.

Dr. Newlin reminds first-gen students, "You were admitted just like every other student, so you BELONG there. Most first-gen students — myself included — experience imposter syndrome because they fear someone will discover they don't belong, but nothing could be further from the truth. Take up space on campus and make your voice heard. The institution is lucky you're there."

Overcoming imposter syndrome means confronting your feelings to redirect your thoughts. Imposter syndrome invalidates your capabilities, so students must uplift just how qualified and gifted they really are.

What tip would you give a first-generation student attending college for the first time?

Stay true to yourself. Who I am is a testament to where I come from and the obstacles that I have overcome. Everything I have gone through has made me who I am today. Much of the reason I am majoring in social work is my upbringing and the challenges that I faced and many in my community have to overcome.

— Tajelia Green, First-Generation College Student at Florida A&M

Find your community. First-generation students can feel overwhelmed being in an entirely new environment for the first time without a parent or family member to provide guidance and advice. You should find your new community on campus so you have a safe, welcoming support system throughout college.

“Colleges have many opportunities to get involved, so be sure you're seeking out peers who share your interests, passions, backgrounds, or hobbies so you can create a solid framework of support for yourself. This will help you in your transition to college and throughout your college career. College is hard for everyone, but a solid support system can help you be much more successful.

— Dr. Matt Newlin, First-Generation College Graduate and Higher Education Consultant

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Connect With Other First-Gen Students

Professors, advisors, mentors, mental health professionals, and peers are all great sources of support when you need help. Depending on your specific need or situation, one person or a combination of people might prove most helpful.

Dr. Newlin encourages first-generation students to reach out for support. "Faculty and professional staff will be available to provide assistance throughout college, but you must take the first step of asking for help. This can be stressful, but it doesn't have to feel that way."

He adds, "More often than not the person will be more than happy to answer all of your questions because they know how difficult college is for first-generation students."

According to a Brookings report from April 2022, more than 40% of college students identify as first-generation. This means that even though you may feel alone at times, there are others who likely understand what you're going through.

Frequently Asked Questions About First-Generation Students

How many college students are first-generation?

More than 40% of college students are first-generation students. Many families send students to college without having gone themselves. Since family members may not have gone to college, some first-generation students seek additional support when pursuing a college degree.

What challenges do first-generation students face?

First-generation students face unique challenges as well as common difficulties that impact all student populations. First-gen students may lack family support and academic preparedness, as well as experience isolation or anxiety.

After graduation, challenges for first-generation students may continue. Colleges can support first-gen students by preparing them for career success after graduation.

Why is being a first-generation college student important?

First-generation college students can bring different opportunities and perspectives to their own lives and to their families' lives. Educational achievement can open doors to expansive careers and higher salaries. Attending college may be an important step or milestone for some individuals and families.

With Contributions From:

Portrait of Tajelia Green, First-Generation Student

Tajelia Green, First-Generation Student

My name is Tajelia Green, also known as Peaches. I was born and raised in Belle Glade, also known as Muck City, and grew up a very outgoing and active child. In high school, I tried as many sports as possible and joined Student ACES, whose mission is to inspire and develop high school student-athletes to be men and women of honor, character, and integrity. I was also a part of the National Honor Society and graduated with honors. As part of ACES, I helped build and develop The Student ACES Center (SAC) in Belle Glade, an afterschool program for high school students.

I aspire to receive a bachelor's degree from Florida A&M, majoring in social work. I selected my major because Student ACES introduced me to giving back, and I believe that through social work I will change lives for the better.

Portrait of Dr. Matt Newlin, First-Generation College Graduate and Higher Education Consultant

Dr. Matt Newlin, First-Generation College Graduate and Higher Education Consultant

Dr. Matt Newlin is a proud first-generation college graduate from a low-income, working-class background. Dr. Newlin is a higher education consultant and faculty member whose work focuses on increasing postsecondary equity for first-generation, low-income, and rural students. His clients and partners include Arizona State University, Washington University, NASPA's Center for First-generation Student Success, and the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development. In past roles, Dr. Newlin has worked at College Advising Corps, Washington University, and the University of St. Louis.