5 Things First-Generation College Applicants Should Know

The following is a guest post written by Sarish Kasat of Admissionado, a premier college admissions consulting company focused on helping students get into their dream schools.

No matter your background, the college application process can be a beast. From targeting schools and taking campus tours, to tracking down letters of recommendation and (maybe the most important thing of all) telling a compelling narrative throughout your application, there’s, well, just a ton to consider.

And if you don’t have the good fortune of having parents, siblings, relatives, or friends who have actually gone through the process themselves, things can get even hairier. Welcome to the world of first-generation college applicants.

Whether a student is considered a first-generation applicant simply because their parents never attended college, or because their parents are immigrants who have never navigated the U.S. college landscape, the additional barriers these students face can be daunting to say the least. Let’s face it, applying to college isn’t simple for anyone. When you start with the complexity that is the nature of the beast, and then add elements such as language barriers and a lack of a natural support system, the process can get downright scary. And many times, it can contribute to continuing on-campus struggles.

It’s not all bad though. There are a plethora of helpful resources available to first-generation students. The key to success is simply figuring out how to gain access to or utilize these resources. That’s why we’ve put together a quick list of advice for first-generation college applicants.

1. Mentors can provide much-needed, real-world guidance
2. There are scholarships and grants out there, specifically for you
3. Many resources are available in the community
4. Many campus resources are available to help you succeed
5. Professors and advisors are there to help (so talk to them!)

Now, let’s break these things down one-by-one with some next steps to help guide you through the process and get you started.

1. Mentors can provide much-needed, real-world guidance

Three words: find a mentor. It could be a teacher, guidance counselor, advisor, or coach. It could be the older sibling of a friend who’s already gone through the college application process, or even a member of your local community center. The basic thing to remember here is that there are a ton of people out there who are willing to help you, but you have to raise your hand and ask them for help. It’s important to find someone who can guide you through this process and help you make more informed decisions.

If your head is spinning trying to think about who is the best candidate, simply start by asking a trusted teacher or stopping by your guidance counselor’s office to talk about college. The possibilities here are endless, but the mantra is singular: find a mentor—someone you trust.

2. There are scholarships and grants out there, specifically for you

What if I told you that there is money out there that exists specifically to help pay for your college education? Believe it? It’s true. Now, more than ever before, people (and companies) are taking note of the obstacles first-generation students face, and many organizations are trying to find ways to help. One of these ways is by offering scholarships specifically for first-generation college students like you!

Open your favorite browser (if you’re not in it already) and start looking for opportunities. Google is your best friend here. You can also use websites like Fastweb, College Board and Unigo to help find scholarship opportunities that are relevant for you. The Admissionado First-Gen Ten is a great scholarship opportunity to check out as well, as it is specifically for first-generation students. And, as always, don’t be afraid to ask your mentors for help in the search.

3. Many resources are available in your community

It’s no secret that academic advisors and counselors are often spread thin across hundreds and hundreds of students. This can make it difficult to schedule a meeting with them, and can leave students (and parents) feeling like they’re getting the short end of the stick when it comes to advising them on their future. Luckily, there are organizations like ImFirst.org that exist specifically to help guide first-generation students and their parents through the process. Find local organizations like this in your community or connect with national ones like I’m First.

4. Many campus resources are available to help you succeed

Once you’re on campus, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with your surroundings, but rest assured, the majority of your surroundings are designed to help you succeed! Aside from talking to your professors and advisors regularly (which we’ll get to in a moment), make sure you visit your school’s career and writing centers whenever possible. These are free resources that can help you think through your career path and make sure you’re on the right track in terms of identifying a major, minor, courses, and everything else that will help you maximize your college experience.

You should also consider joining a first-generation student organization at your school. An organization such as this will expose you to older students who have been in your shoes and are brimming with good advice. Additionally, an organization like this will, in time, give you the opportunity to mentor and support incoming first-generation students. Pay it forward, right? Check out the Campus Life section of your school’s website to look into any on-campus organizations you think you’d like to join.

Lastly, look for opportunities to land an on-campus job, become part of other on-campus organizations, and/or take part in resident-life activities in your dorm. Especially if language is a potential barrier for you, these are amazing opportunities to 1) meet and engage with other people and 2) practice your soft skills. This not only forces you out of your comfort zone, but also encourages you to nurture existing interests and find some you didn’t even know you had.

5. Professors and advisors are there to help (so talk to them!)

Much like we’ve advocated that you talk to your high school teachers and guidance counselors, once you’ve enrolled in college, start building relationships with your professors right away. We recommend attending office hours and introducing yourself to at least one or two professors that you genuinely admire or respect. Get to know them and make sure they know you as well.

It can definitely be intimidating to introduce yourself to a professor (which is why so many students coast through their courses without doing so), but you’ll find that, in almost all situations, they’re very happy to interact with you. Making sure that you stand out to them, as both a human being and a courteous, engaged student, will pay dividends in the future.

Additionally, most new students are assigned an academic advisor when they start school. Make sure to utilize this person! Your advisor can help guide you through selecting a major, minor, specialization, and/or concentration, as well as provide you with valuable information on specific courses. They can also connect you to other types of academic support services available on campus such as tutoring and writing centers. Once you’ve decided on a major, your faculty advisor will be another resource. They can offer you real-world guidance geared specifically toward the field you’ve chosen to study, which is extremely valuable.  

All in all, it’s important to remember that you aren’t in this crazy college thing by yourself. There are so many people and resources available to help you succeed, both on the way to college and once you’re there. Sometimes, the hardest part is just finding them and being courageous and disciplined enough to utilize them. Be confident in yourself, and you’ll be hurdling every obstacle in no time!

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.