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First-Gen Students: How to Navigate the College Search

Being a first-generation student makes the college search overwhelming without a parent to guide you, but you can own your admission process. Here's how!

We all remember and celebrate our firsts: first word, first kiss, first car. We remember the first person who landed on the moon, not the third person. Everyone wants to be first, and first impressions matter. But with terms like Common App, personal statement, supplementals, college visits, FAFSA, and CSS—being the first in your family to go to college doesn't feel all that glorious anymore. Let’s look at what it means to be a first-generation student and how you can set yourself up for success.

How do I know if I'm a first-generation student?

First, a question: Am I first generation if my parents attended college outside of America? Technically, yes. But not all colleges agree with that. Columbia University defines first generation as "a student whose parent(s) or guardian(s) haven’t received an American four-year bachelor’s degree or completed a four-year bachelor’s degree later in life," whereas Cornell University defines first generation as a student whose parent(s) or guardian(s) haven’t received any four-year college degree, including from colleges not in the US. Regardless of whether you’re first generation on paper, you are first generation culturally since you face the same struggles that first-gen students with parents who haven’t earned a degree face: the hurdles of the US college admission system. 

Build a support system

Since first-generation students don't have the advantage of looking to their parents for firsthand advice, it's all the more important to find and build a support system during the college search. Being first generation can feel isolating, but I promise you—there are many of us out there. Reach out to other first-generation students in person and online. We’re here to support and empower each other. And remember to reach out to your counselors and your school’s college support office (if they have one) too! They’re there to aid you, but you must be the one to take action. Also, counselor doesn't have to be restricted to only your school counselor—don’t be afraid to reach out to college admission officers with questions, and be sure to let them know you’re a first-generation student.

Related: First-Generation Students and the College Search

Utilize free advising programs

There’s a handful of free college advising programs aimed at supporting first-generation and/or low-income students: College Advising Corps, College Point, Matriculate, Strive for College—just to name a few. In addition, the College Essay Guy has a Personal Statement course that completely changed my college essay game. It's free if your advisor or counselor signs you up. He also has a Matchlighters program that provides free college counseling and essay editing for "high-achieving, low-income students." His website in general provides abundant resources and tips for writing college essays. Registering near the second half of your junior year is the best time to get started! Your advisor or counselor can help you stay on track, answer your "burning questions," help edit your essays, provide scholarship opportunities, and be there for emotional support.

Not just for academic support

You're going to need emotional support through this. College application season is an emotionally exhausting period, especially if you simultaneously shoulder the burden of being the first in your family to apply to college. In addition, many first-gen students are also low income. If you are too, you’re simultaneously beholden to two uncertainties: whether you’ll get into a school you like and whether you can get into a school you can afford. (You’ll likely be applying to many scholarships at the same time.)

Utilize online resources—to a point

The internet is overflowing with resources—college search websites (like CollegeXpress!), YouTube videos, forums, etc. But remember, there’s always a place to draw the line. Don't try to replicate others' successful applications or essays. College forums often harbor toxic college-obsessed culture that you would do well to stay away from. Many applicants, especially successful ones at top-tier schools, have the advantage and privilege of not being first-gen, so don't let their seemingly "superior" extracurriculars or applications deter you. Similarly, avoid reading too many sample essays, as you don't want to lose your unique voice. 

And my dear first-generation students, please don't shy away from telling the "cliché" stories in your essay. Yes, there are hundreds of immigrant parent stories, but that doesn't diminish the obstacles you've overcome and the growth you've experienced as a result of this critical part of your identity. Your struggles are not any less relevant because hundreds of other applicants have faced and continue to face them too. If anything, these shared experiences unite first-generation students against the odds we encounter.  

Related: College Search Help for Disadvantaged Students 

Apply to fly-in programs

My list of regrets from college application season thankfully isn't long, but not applying to fly-in programs comes out at the top. Fly-ins are college visitation programs aimed at improving higher education access to underprivileged groups, including first-generation students. These programs require applications to be submitted junior year or early senior year. If accepted, you’ll embark on a one- to three-night trip to the school with your travels costs—and possibly food and other costs—all paid for. You’ll get to meet other students like you, see what resources the school offers first-gen students, and have the chance to see in person whether you would consider calling that school home for four years. If you're not accepted to a fly-in program, you've just got practice writing college application–worthy essays! It's a win either way.

Start the admission process early

Start your college applications the summer before your senior year. Please begin your financial aid applications early too! You and your parents will likely struggle with filling these out since they’re all new to you, and you want to ensure the accuracy of your applications, so starting early will hopefully prevent you and your family from becoming completely overwhelmed. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile both open on October 1—and you can start applying the same day.  

Related: 8 Advantages of Starting Your College Search Early

Don't be embarrassed about not understanding college applications. You are worthy of achievement, getting into college, and going to college as a first-generation student. Being the first to step foot on the moon is risky and uncertain. Even if you don't end up at the college you anticipated, you have still landed on the moon. You’re the first in your family to apply and go to college. That is remarkable and momentous. Your strength proves that you’ll succeed no matter where you find yourself for the next four years. 

Check out the tag “first-generation students” for even more great content to help you own your college search!

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About Rachel Lin

Rachel Lin is from New York City andis attending Northwestern University beginning fall 2021. She's a Computer Science and  Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences (MMSS) double major and hopes to use data science to tackle social and environmental issues. As a first-generation, low-income student, Rachel hopes to share her college application and life experiences to potentially aid students like herrself. In her free time, she enjoys reading, playing the piano and flute, and eating too much avocado toast.


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