Important Things to Know as a First-Generation College Student

By Brandi Lucey · August 27, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Important Things to Know as a First-Generation College Student

Some parents want their children to follow in their footsteps, and even choose the same career. Others, however, want their kids to aim higher, and achieve more. This can be especially true for parents that were not able to go to college.

Being a first-generation college student is something to be proud of, but it can also be nerve-racking. There might be high expectations that come with being the first in the family to attend school that add to the normal stress of attending college. On top of that, there’s the fact that, if nobody else in the family has done it yet, there are no family members to give advice or provide guidance.

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to not only survive but thrive as a first-generation college student. Below are some strategies that can help you prepare for college and manage the pressure of being the first in your family to have this opportunity.

Challenges of Being a First-Generation Student

What exactly is a first-generation college student? Being a first-generation college student means the student’s parents either did not earn a college degree or did not go to college at all. Since their parents may not understand much of the college experience, these students are embarking on a somewhat unknown path, which can lead to challenges that other students don’t face.

Lacking this direct source of advice can affect the student’s ability to complete school. It may be more difficult for a first-generation student to adequately prepare for college, both financially and socially. College can be stressful, and without a support system that understands these experiences, the student may find it difficult to continue with school.

Some first-generation students may have other demographic characteristics, such as low economic status or being enrolled in a less-than-full-time course load, that also increase their risk of not finishing college. The usual stressors of college are enough to make it a challenging experience for anybody, but first-gen students may find these factors make it even more difficult.

Another factor that makes being a first-gen student difficult is not understanding the financial aid system. Students whose parents have gone to college may be more familiar with the process of applying for aid and looking for scholarships and grants. If first-generation students are already from a lower socioeconomic background, as well as being the first person in their family to go to college, the financial strain could be more difficult to manage than it is for others.

There are other reasons that first-gen students may have difficulty completing their four-year degrees: They may be less prepared for the rigorous academics at the college level, they could be working full-time jobs, or they could be attending college later in life, after having children.

First-generation college students can still be successful despite these additional difficulties. With the proper preparation and support, they can not only achieve their four-year degrees, but thrive in college.

💡 Quick Tip: You can fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Thriving in College

The saying “C’s get degrees!” describes students who get by in college by simply passing their classes, not looking to achieve anything other than that piece of paper at the end of it all. But if you’re a first-generation student looking to make the most of your college years, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Study Tips

If you want to crush your academics, instead of being crushed by them, you’ll need to develop proper study techniques. The lessons will be more difficult in college, and students have to depend more on their own self-discipline than they did in high school. If it’s been a while since you have been in school, implementing good techniques and habits can help you adjust to the work again.

Here are some study tips that may help first-generation students adapt to college-level learning:

•   Pick a consistent study location, one that is comfortable and free of distractions. Once you’ve found the perfect spot, you might consider studying there consistently.
•   Write down deadlines and important dates in a planner — this may help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and being caught by surprise when deadlines are approaching.
•   Schedule consistent study times instead of cramming the night before an exam. This has been proven to be a better method of remembering subjects for the long term.
•   Find a study group — this can make it easier to learn more difficult material.
•   Review notes each day. This repetition can help you remember them.
•   If you’re struggling with a certain class, ask professors for help during their office hours or seek out available tutoring services on campus.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Start Preparing For College

Building Relationships

The connections you make while in college can become invaluable after graduation. Getting to know professors and classmates can not only provide a source of social support during the stressful college years but may also provide opportunities for future networking.

Most professors will have regular office hours when they’re available to meet with students. These office hours can be used to talk about class material, get to know your professor better, or get their advice on your future. Usually, professors are happy to help students excel in class or discover the next steps in their journey.

Taking the time to get to know your classmates is also beneficial. When students make connections in class this helps give them support. Classmates can take notes for each other when someone needs to miss class, they can study together, and assist each other in the post-graduation job hunt.

Befriending classmates will not only provide academic support, but emotional support, too. Nobody understands what a college student is going through as well as another college student.

Avoiding Avoidance

Students who are juggling work, family, and school may feel overwhelmed by their college workload. Planning ahead and staying organized can help you stay successful in school despite these extra responsibilities.

Like all students, first-gen students might benefit from keeping a planner and scheduling study sessions ahead of time so they don’t fall into the trap of ineffective, last-minute cram sessions.

Staying ahead of schedule can also help in case other problems arise. Students who are parents might have child-related reasons for missing a class, but if they have assignments started ahead of time and are already on top of their study schedule, the absence will be less likely to negatively impact their grades.

💡 Quick Tip: Need a private student loan to cover your school bills? Because approval for a private student loan is based on creditworthiness, a cosigner may help a student get loan approval and a lower rate.

Paying for College

College costs are an important piece of attending college, and it’s good to start planning as soon as possible. First-generation students may not have any immediate family members who have been through the process, possibly making information on how to pay for college more difficult to come by. There are a variety of ways students can finance college, including grants, loans, and scholarships.

The first step to financing your college education is filling out the FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This application will determine your eligibility to receive federal aid for college, which includes scholarships, grants, work-study, and federal student loans. Federal grants usually don’t need to be repaid, but federal loans generally do.

Students must be able to demonstrate financial need to receive most federal aid, along with meeting other eligibility requirements .

If you aren’t eligible for federal aid, or if the federal aid you receive isn’t enough to cover all of your costs, you might also consider applying for private scholarships, which are available through a variety of sources, including schools, community organizations, and corporations. Eligibility varies for each one. Some scholarships are need-based, whereas some are merit-based. There are also scholarships available specifically for first-generation college students.

Another option available for financing college is private student loans. These are available through private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates and terms vary, depending on the lender. Generally, borrowers (or cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates.

Keep in mind, though, that private loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-based repayment plans and deferment or forbearance — that automatically come with federal student loans

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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