First to Go to College? Advice You Didn’t Know You Needed

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Published on March 28, 2022 · Updated on March 29, 2022

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First to Go to College? Advice You Didn’t Know You Needed

When you're the first person in your family to head off to college, it can be hard to know what you don't know. A few first-generation graduates have some advice.

"I went to an all-girls Catholic school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan," said Kaitlyn Fikaris, who grew up in Purchase, New York. "Our counselors didn't give us much direction about applying to college. They assumed we had family members or paid private tutors to guide us. I didn't."

Fikaris was the first in her family to graduate high school, much less go to college.

"I didn't even know what a FAFSA was," she said.

A lot of people are in the same boat, whether they are fresh out of high school or are among the 34% of first-generation college students going to school in adulthood.

If that's you, we've got your back: First-gen graduates from all over the country told us what they wish they had understood when they went to college. Here's what you need to know:

8 Tips for First-Generation College Students

1. Understand Financial Outcomes

It's important to determine the payoff of your college degree before getting into a ton of debt.

"I went to college when just having a degree was an advantage. That is not true today," said Fred Amrein, CEO and Founder of PayForEd "Students and parents need to be smarter now. They need to focus on the financial outcome, not just the degree. Colleges often do not provide that insight."

Before you settle on a major, Amrein recommends asking:

  • What are the career prospects for this major?
  • What is the average projected starting salary for that career where I live?
  • Will I be able to pay off school loans and provide for myself on that salary?

2. There Are Ways to Get a Degree and Save Money

Finances are the main reason first-generation students drop out of college. But there are a few things you can do to make sure getting an education doesn't totally hobble your financial future.

Make an appointment with your school's financial aid office to learn about grants, scholarships, work/study programs, or private loans with repayment options that might work for you. Spend your first two years taking required courses at a community college and then transfer to a four-year program to save on tuition. If you're working, see if your employer has a tuition reimbursement program that can offset some costs.

It's also a good idea to plan out your degree program with the help of an academic counselor.

"The best way to save money is to graduate on time! That's why the course selection process is so critical," said Amrein.

3. Ask for Help

You don't have to muddle through on your own.

There are people who can make sure you have the information you need: academic and career counselors, professors, student aides, and even alumni.

"Without any college experience to draw from, it was hard for my parents to understand the workload, the stress, or the path I was forging," said Jennifer Devine, a Communications Specialist at University of North Georgia. "They relied on me to explain what each term would cost, how we should pay for it, and how long everything would take.

"I recommend finding an adult mentor on campus to help: If a first-generation student has someone they can talk through decisions with, their likelihood of success is so much higher."

4. Pick Up a Hard Skill

If you graduate with at least one hard skill that employers need, you can buy yourself time to figure out your passions as an adult while still putting food on the table.

"I wish I had learned a non-trivial skill in college, aside from reading academic texts and writing papers," said Will Ward, the CEO of Translation Equipment HQ. "Foreign languages, statistics, and major programming languages are all good examples of skills you can take everywhere that will always boost your resume. Having one of these feathers in your cap might just be the foundation you need to pivot in a new, unexpected direction."

5. Learn How to Study

Not everyone gets to college already knowing how to study. The key to studying well? Studying often.

"Cramming for exams all the time will eventually break you," said Julie Anne Ensomo, the Founder of Adaptable Mama.

"You need to study every day. You don't have to do it for hours, and you don't have to do it the traditional way. You can discuss what you learned with your classmates right after a class, or record the class discussion and listen to it again while you do chores. There are so many ways to learn and retain information — figure out what works for you and do a little bit every day."

6. Befriend Your Professors

Professors are valuable people to have in your corner outside of the classroom. They can connect you to job opportunities, write recommendation letters, and give insightful life advice.

So go to office hours. Drop an email. Hang around after class and ask questions.

"The idea that I could have grown-up, peer-to-peer discussions with professors was revelatory and liberating," said Dr. Jennifer Harrison, a writing consultant at ReadWritePerfect. "I still treasure what I learned from that experience; it helped me grow up. But students like me may miss out on valuable growing opportunities if they don't know this is a possibility."

7. You Don't Have to Accept Failure

You don't have to just accept failing grades. If you're struggling, you aren't doomed.

"There is nothing wrong with failing a class, but it can almost always be avoided," said Eleyn Galvez, a first-generation student. "If the material is the problem, ask questions during class — more likely than not, there are others who are struggling as well.

"Try tutoring at the learning center at your college, or ask teaching assistants for help. And don't hesitate to go to your professor's office hours and explain that you need further assistance. This will show your determination to do well in the class, and it will be very unlikely that the professor fails you after that."

8. Embrace the Experience

Growing as a person is just as important as growing as a student.

"Explore all the exciting things your university has to offer: seminars, internships, guest lectures, trips, volunteer opportunities, societies, student groups, sports, and clubs," said Bea Hoang, a Marketing Manager at Bold.org

"You've worked so hard to get into college, so do yourself and your family proud by truly broadening your horizons and potentially discovering a lifelong passion you would otherwise never have considered!"

Conclusion

First-gen students face a slew of unique challenges that make adjusting to college really difficult. As a result, more than a quarter of first-generation students quit within the first year. So if you struggle at first, that doesn't mean you're not college material. It means you're normal. Stick with it.

"I'd remind first-gen students that education can help improve not only the quality of their own lives, but also the lives of those they love," said Patricia Roberts, a first-gen student turned COO.

"For example, I was able to eventually buy a home for my mom and my brother who is developmentally disabled. That was one of the proudest moments of my life. I could never have done it without the doors that education helped to open."

Featured Image Credit: Marko Geber / Getty Images

Imposter syndrome – doubting your achievements and feeling like a fraud – can really derail your college journey and career path. We spoke with folks who know all about it... We talked to a psychologist who specializes in outreach for first-generation college students about imposter syndrome in school and how to combat it. First-generation college students face unique mental health challenges. Find out what type of support is typically available and what barriers still exist.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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