Working with First-Generation College Applicants - Part II

Moving on from high school may be overwhelming for first-generation college applicants, but you can help keep them on track and transition to college life.

I remember my first day of college. The campus seemed enormous, and walking from class to class was frustratingly cumbersome compared to crossing the halls of my small southern high school. I had some older friends who'd already started college and I had visited them at their respective campuses, but actually starting classes myself was a whole new ball game.

For a first-generation college applicant, the idea of leaving the structured predictability of high school may seem overwhelming. In my last post, I offered a few ways college counselors can help these students to start planning for college early on. This week, I'll continue the discussion with some suggestions for keeping them on track and helping them transition comfortably to college life.

Encourage them with the big picture

Students whose parents did not attend college may be lacking the informed support and guidance that will be crucial for their success. They may become discouraged or distracted throughout high school and the college admission process, deterred by everything from a simple lack of motivation or inspiration to the challenge of socioeconomic disadvantages. Help them to focus on their goals by reminding them of the long-term benefits of a college education. Not only will they become more well-rounded individuals and attractive job candidates, but they'll be starting a new trend for their children and grandchildren. Children of college graduates are more likely to attend college themselves, so by becoming the first in their families to pursue a college degree, they'll be making a lasting investment in their future families. You should also remind them that college graduates earn significantly more than those with only a high school education, and the unemployment rate is much lower among those with college degrees. First-generation students may have to juggle a unique set of challenges, but there's a huge payoff if they can trudge through them and remain undaunted.

Make it a family affair

If possible, try to get some face time with your students' parents or guardians and give them a crash course in college admission. Go over topics such as what is generally required when submitting college applications, deadlines and requirements for financial aid, the importance of college visits, and what their children can do during after-school hours and summers to boost their odds of being accepted. Consider compiling a list of useful websites, important dates and deadlines, and other resources that you print out and give to both students and their parents. In the event that you encounter parents who fail to see the benefits of a college education, be sure you have a quiver full of sharp arguments to fire back with, including information on the many scholarships available to first-generation college students, which may assuage some of their hesitations.

Ease the transition to college life

A first-generation student may have a limited or misinformed concept of what life on campus will be like. Indeed, there are many factors to consider, and they will be faced with a slew of new responsibilities and taxing situations. Consider having a discussion with these students about some of the potentially stressful things they may experience freshman year. Go over pesky dorm roommates, the importance of financial responsibility, balancing their studies with their social lives, and taking advantage of campus resources. Encourage them to attend freshman orientation events and network with current students. Some schools even have freshman "assimilation" classes that students can take their first semester to help further ease the transition to college life. You should also encourage their parents to attend any events the college has for them, as well as parent days after classes have begun. Once they're on campus, your students should be able to bask in their newfound independence while resting assured they have the support of their families back home.

As a college counselor, you can be hugely influential in the lives of first-generation college applicants, giving them the resources, encouragement, and motivation they may not find elsewhere. Help them reach their potential by searching for colleges and scholarships right here on

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college applications college counselors counselor advice first-generation students transition to college

About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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