5 Essential Tips for First-Generation College Students
By Bethanny Parker
Reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.
Published on August 12, 2021
- A first-generation college student is someone whose parents did not earn a four-year degree.
- Take advantage of student services, such as academic advising and tutoring.
- Reach out to advisors and/or mentors early on and stay in touch.
- Build relationships with your professors and attend office hours if you need help.
What is a first-generation college student? Different institutions define first-generation students in different ways, but the federal definition is the most common: a student is first-generation if neither of their parents obtained a four-year college degree.
As a group, first-generation college students have below-average graduation rates. Challenges these learners may face include low self-confidence and a lack of knowledge surrounding the college admissions process and college life. Additionally, students from lower-income high schools may not have the benefit of a rigorous college prep curriculum.
This article details tips and information that can help first-generation college students increase their chances of success in college.
Find Out What Support Your School Offers
All students, including first-generation college students, should do some research to find out what kind of support a school offers its students. Many schools offer student services like academic advising, tutoring, writing assistance, and career services. Your school may also offer mentorship opportunities to help you get the most from your college experience.
Check with your school's financial aid office to find out whether it offers scholarships or grants that specifically target first-generation college students. Some schools offer especially generous financial aid packages, and the financial aid office can help you find scholarships to reduce out-of-pocket expenses.
In addition, colleges may offer work-study programs that allow some students to work to earn extra money for school. Your school may also house student organizations that provide support for first-generation college students.
Reach Out to Mentors and Academic Advisors Early On
Academic advisors provide information about the registration process and help students choose their classes. They also identify areas in which students may need additional support and refer them to potential resources. Mentors help students identify their academic and career goals and provide guidance to help them reach those goals.
To take full advantage of mentors and academic advisors, students should access these resources sooner rather than later. Many schools assign new enrollees advisors or mentors as soon as a student is admitted. If your school does not do that, you should contact the admissions office to find out how to get matched up with an advisor or mentor.
Advisors and mentors help prepare you for success from the first day of class by ensuring you have all the resources you need, including access to the writing center, tutoring, and other student services.
Build Relationships With Your Professors
Students can boost their chances of success by building good relationships with their professors. Most professors offer office hours — a dedicated time when students can stop by and get answers to any questions they have about the material. This is also a good chance to get to know your professors and start to build professional relationships with them.
You may also be able to email your professors or interact with them virtually, although meeting with them in person can make it easier to build a relationship and extend your network. If your professors know you, they may be better able to advocate for you or write you a letter of recommendation in the future.
Your professors may also be able to provide additional academic resources to help you learn material if you're struggling with something. In addition to building relationships with your professors, be sure to engage with your fellow students. Making friends in college can decrease stress and help you grow your network.
Don't Hesitate to Ask for Help
If you're having trouble, reach out to your professors, advisor, or mentor for help. If you're struggling with a specific class, talk to the professor — they may be able to provide additional information or a new perspective that conveys an idea more clearly than your textbook.
It's especially important to ask for help if you've failed a test. A bad grade can feel demoralizing, but everyone fails sometimes and it's important to persevere. Your professor can help you come up with a plan to learn the material and get your grades back on track. Additionally, most schools operate writing and tutoring centers.
Your academic advisor or mentor can be an excellent source of support, too. If you don't have an advisor or mentor, ask for one. These professionals can advocate for you and help you find the resources you need to succeed in college.
Know That Feelings of Self-Doubt Are Common
Many college students suffer from self-doubt. You may be under stress due to pressure from family, or feel as if you're faking your way through college. The latter is known as impostor syndrome. The truth is that you're probably more capable than you think you are.
Most first-time college students feel nervous about their classes and worry they may be too hard. Keep in mind that you can always ask for help if you need it — even if your classes are hard, you're not alone. With the help of your professors, advisors, and mentors, you can do this.
Remember that your advisor and/or mentor is there to help you. If you need additional resources to understand the material, they can help you find them. Many colleges also offer mental health services to help students stay healthy so they can perform their best in school.
Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in her subjects for over 21 years at Central Washington University, along with classes on successful writing. Laila has devoted her teaching and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Above all, she is committed to her students' complete experience, raising awareness of BIPoC issues in language, community, and culture. She leads with equity in management and nonprofit volunteering, and continues to develop her own understandings of these complex issues both professionally and in her lived experiences.
Feature Image: Laura Doss / Corbis / Getty Images