Featured Image

Applying to Out-of-State Colleges as a First-Generation Student

It can be tough to figure out the higher education system as a first-generation student. What could make things more complicated? Applying to out-of-state colleges. This guide for first-gens can help you navigate the process.

As a first-generation student, you may have no idea what you’re getting into when applying for scholarships, financial aid, or even college itself. I know how tough it can be to figure out how the higher education system works. What could make things even more complicated? Applying to out-of-state colleges.

Maybe you want to leave the nest or just get away to a prestigious college. If you’re like me, you want to pursue a major with good programs out of the state you call home. You may encounter more challenges by attending college out of state (like inflated tuition prices), but it is possible with the right knowledge and support system—a lot of different students do it!

Here’s a step-by-step guide to applying to out-of-state schools as a first-generation student.

Related: First in Your Family to Go to College? You Are Not Alone!

Write out your plan and communicate with your parents/guardians

The hardest part of being a first-generation student is that your parent(s) or guardian(s) never went to or completed college. If you aspire to earn your degree, you should plan everything out, writing it down step by step and making solid plans on how to achieve this goal. Communicate with your parents when you decide what you want to do. Just because they have limited insight doesn’t mean they don’t have insight on your decisions, and if you are planning on getting them on your side, you should take into account their thoughts and feelings on the situation and your plans for your future.

Talk to and familiarize yourself with your school counselors

Another thing you absolutely have to do is get to know your guidance or college counselor. Since you don’t have anyone to personally inform you about scholarship opportunities or walk you through applications to various universities, it’s good to find someone at your high school or community center who can. Counselors can help you find valuable resources for things such as scholarships, financial aid, and more, in addition to answering questions about the college search and application process for you.

One thing that helped me was getting an introduction on how to make accounts with the colleges I applied to. With limited contact to the schools and a busy schedule, it’s comforting to have someone walk you through unfamiliar processes. If you don’t have access to a counselor at your own school or their knowledge on the subject is limited, contact the colleges you’re considering directly to ask about the path to your higher education. Don’t be afraid to reach out; it will only help others help you.

Narrow down your prospects

If you’re applying out of state, the first step is figuring out just where to apply. You may want to figure out if you’re more of a West Coast or East Coast person. Maybe you want to apply to schools in the Midwest or the South. Think about what kind of an environment you want to experience your secondary education in, what weather you want to be subjected to, and how far away from home you’re willing to travel.

Another big factor to consider are costs. Out-of-state tuition can be two or three times what it costs to go to college in state. When you’re new to the admission process and have limited help at home, that’s a tough aspect to consider when you’re creating your college list. But with reciprocity agreements and tuition exchange programs like the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE), students can find colleges in certain regions and neighboring states with tuition comparable to in-state costs. These programs are essential for first-generation students to look into. Don’t count out-of-state colleges out because of the initial price tag; just keep your chin up, do your research, and you’ll make it work.

Related: Start your search with the CollegeXpress college search tool

Check out the complete cost to attend

You need to make sure you can afford to attend your college and sustain adequate living conditions, with help from scholarships, loans, or otherwise. If you plan to move off campus after your first year, see what options there are for housing off campus, and plan out transportation to and from the college.

When it comes to classroom materials, a good textbook service you can use is Slugbooks. Slugbooks is a free online service that helps you narrow down where to buy textbooks for your classes. Much like Amazon, it can help reduce the cost of your textbooks and save you a lot of money in the long run.

As for fees, most are similar from school to school. Factor them in with the total and talk out how much you’re expected to have your family contribute for each. This will play the biggest role in helping you decide what college or university is an option, especially financially.

You should also apply to any and all scholarships available to you, plus fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid…but more on that later.

Related: Search for scholarships on CollegeXpress

Subscribe to a college’s newsletter or email

Having access to information and reminders about enrollment dates and submission requirements, among other helpful resources like timelines, can help you keep on track and meet important application deadlines. Plus, immersing yourself in news surrounding campus activities, opportunities, and enrollment will help you connect with the college and become well versed in the school’s culture and admission system itself.

Determine what applications to fill out

There are a few common types of systems colleges use to get application forms in, like the Common Application, but some schools use their own unique applications. If you go on the college website, you should be able to figure out which one they use and what’s required to submit with it. You may also qualify for an application fee waiver if you meet certain requirements.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is another application you need to be familiar with and fill out every year you plan to attend college. The FAFSA will get you, as its name suggests, financial aid depending on your family’s needs. Some high schools and community colleges have workshops available for filling them out, but you must do so with your parents. Ask around and keep an eye out for these events. Further, call the financial aid offices of the schools you’re applying to directly to learn more about scholarship opportunities and grant information to supplement your other aid—they have access to more than you do online.

Wait for acceptances and choose your school

After you receive your acceptances, look at various aspects of each school and weigh the pros and cons for each environment, such as living conditions, weather, possible job or internship opportunities around the area, and the size of the city you’ll be going to school in. One way to accomplish this is to visit the campuses you’re considering, if you have the money or opportunities such as scholarships or fly-in programs to do so. There are also virtual tours for some campuses, so you don’t necessarily need to be there in person to get a feel for what kind of environment you might prefer. Other factors for you to consider include the financial aid package each school offers you (learn how to compare them here); majors/programs of interest (unless you’re undecided, in which case you’ll look at how many different options they offer; and distance from home.

Don’t be afraid to do a Google search

If you have any questions about applying for financial aid, applying to a specific school, or even transferring if you plan to do so later, it never hurts to just Google it. You’ll find dozens of helpful websites such as CollegeXpress and the College Board to get you started on your path to a higher education. With boundless opportunities and resources such as no-essay scholarships and tips such as these, you’ll be on your way to the college of your choice in no time. Just make sure the site is safe to use and that you never pay for an honors program or scholarship entry. Always double-check sources and make sure the site is transparent before you hand over your information and your future over to a stranger on the internet.

Related: Empowered by Perspective: Top Tips for Minority and First-Gen College Students

After you do all this research and apply to your colleges, it’s a matter of patience and perseverance. Narrow down your options and make your first choice happen if you have the means. Good luck!

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway

Rana Slosberg

Rana Slosberg

Slosberg College Solutions LLC

My favorite part of CollegeXpress is the 800+ lists which have all kinds of hard-to-find information. These lists are helpful when I’m creating college lists, and I also use them to give students a feel for a particular college or university.

Anthony Vidal

Anthony Vidal

High School Class of 2023

CollegeXpress has helped me in a series of different ways when it comes to finding scholarships and learning information about different universities. I actually found my dream university through CollegeXpress and am working on getting there.

Rayan Hamdan

Rayan Hamdan


I joined CollegeXpress just a few months ago. I had been struggling with severe anxiety, causing me to not be able to tour schools and make sure a college would be perfect for me. I came across CollegeXpress one day when I was searching for colleges online, and it completely changed the game. I was easily able to choose colleges that would suit me, and I also entered a few giveaways! Thank you so much!



High School Class of 2019

My favorite feature of CollegeXpress is the scholarship search. As someone going out of state for college, I needed all the financial help I could get, and CollegeXpress helped me easily find scholarships I could apply for to help fund my education.

Hannah Nelsen

Hannah Nelsen

High School Class of 2022

CollegeXpress has helped me look at colleges that fit my interests by taking my profile and matching it to colleges that have the programs I'm looking for. It has the ability to connect me to colleges so I can be contacted by them and look at them more in-depth to find what's right for me. Additionally, the scholarship database is super beneficial for getting scholarships for college. Not only does it help lift the financial burden of college but it shows all the opportunities available. Overall, CollegeXpress has been very helpful to me.

College Matches