College Process Student Voices

A Guide for First-Generation Students Navigating the College Process

First Things First: A Guide for First-Generation Students Navigating the College Application Process

Emily Luong, Smith College ‘20

Xuan Truong, Smith College ‘21

The college application journey might not be so straightforward, but one thing’s for certain: first-gen students are persistent, determined, and resourceful. 

It’s no secret that applying to college can be a scary process. Which  schools are  the best fits, whether to stay close to home, and how to write the perfect essay are obstacles for any high school student. These decisions can be especially intimidating when we’re the first in our families to go to college. We come from low-income, immigrant, and/or various cultural backgrounds. Many of us have parents who place their hopes and expectations on our shoulders. Many of us go into junior year of high school not knowing where to start. Despite the long and busy road ahead, you don’t have to go through the application process alone. For fellow first-gen students, here are some tips and reminders  as you begin  this challenging but equally rewarding journey. 

Fall & Spring of Junior Year: Creating the Right College List for You

There are over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States and thousands more around the world—each with their own unique academic programs, campus environments, career development services, and student organizations. As a first-gen student, you  might not have learned  about many schools besides the famous names and local universities, and the wide range of options can be overwhelming. Looking at colleges however, that are outside your radar can help you discover matches  you  never thought of before. There are great schools  that are committed to fully meeting demonstrated financial need, have well-resourced academic departments with diverse faculty, and offer orientation programs and year-long resources for students who identify as first-gen, low-income, undocumented, and people of color. To help you get started on the search, consider these questions: 

  • How far away from home  to go, and how far away does your family want you to go? 
  • Would you rather live in a suburban or urban campus setting? 
  • What subjects would you like to study and possibly major in? What academic departments are important to you ?  
  • Do you want the flexibility to explore an open curriculum  or would you like to stay within your major? 
  • Which type of teaching style works best for you: large lectures or small discussion groups? 
  • Do you plan on studying abroad or participating in an exchange program? 

Choosing a college is a big decision—don’t limit yourself only to what’s familiar or what you think you can afford. You deserve to find the school that’s right for you.

Spring of Junior Year & Summer/Fall of Senior Year: Planning College Visits

Browsing through student testimonies, statistics, and photos on college websites may give you a general idea of what a school is like, but nothing can compare to experiencing student life firsthand. Plan to spend a day or two on campus to give yourself a better sense of how you truly feel. Visits can require a lot of preparation and resources, but they aren’t just reserved for students who can afford it. If travel is preventing you from visiting, it’s worth researching whether  the colleges on your list offer free fly-in programs. These programs allow   underrepresented students to  tour campus, sit in on classes, participate in workshops, and connect with current students and faculty. 

Whether you attend these admissions events or visit on your own, be sure to speak one-on-one with admissions and financial aid officers to have a clear understanding of application requirements and affordability. It’s also important to identify  if this feels like an  inclusive environment for first-gen students. Investigate  faculty and staff mentorships, emergency funding, multicultural centers, and support organizations. For many first-gen students, the college visit may be the first time you’ve  stepped foot on  a college campus  . Prepare a list of questions and ask for clarification on unfamiliar terms and concepts. But most of all, enjoy your time and have fun exploring the surrounding area!

Fall of Senior Year: Sending in Your Applications 

For the past year,  you’ve been honing your college list, taking standardized tests, filling out CommonApp questions, and writing your college essay and supplements—all while balancing coursework, extracurriculars, jobs, and other responsibilities. By December of your senior year, it might seem like the process will never end, but you’re almost there! Your guidance counselor will stay in touch with you about deadlines and forms, but don’t be afraid to stop by their office for extra help as questions or concerns come up. To stay organized and keep track of your progress, consider writing down everything you have left to do. Seeing all the tasks visually  whether they’re on  a page in your planner or a document on your computer – will make them feel far less abstract and much more manageable. There are many online college 

application checklists  you can download and print for free, including this one by CollegeBoard. As you finish the final components of your applications, take a deep breath and remember that even if your parents might not be able to check over the CommonApp or proofread your essays, they are still there to offer moral support. Once everything’s submitted, be sure to celebrate and acknowledge all the hard work you’ve done!

Fall of Freshman Year of College: Establishing Your Rightful Place on Campus 

Now you’re officially committed to a college! Let the celebrations begin, but don’t let them stop once you arrive on campus in the fall. It’s one thing to feel out of place when visiting campus for the first time as a prospective student, but it’s another story when you’re moving in as an 

enrolled freshman. While it seems like every other student belongs in this rigorous academic setting, you do too. You got to where you are because of your own abilities, determination, and accomplishments. Your family’s sacrifices and hard work may have paved the way for you, but your successes are still your own. Recognize the progress you’ve made and don’t be hard on yourself if you’re still adjusting to this new chapter—everyone else is too! Joining activities such as sports teams, newspapers, drama clubs, and student government is a great way to be a part of your campus community. Organizations for first-gen, low-income, and students of color are inclusive support systems that can ease feelings of homesickness during the first few months of the semester. However you choose to get involved with your new school, the bottom line is that you belong there and you’re not alone. 

To first-gen students, college can often seem like an entirely different world. We all come from various backgrounds and environments that didn’t prepare us to attend college fairs, enroll in SAT and ACT tutoring programs, or network with professors and other college students. The college application journey might not be so straightforward, but one thing’s for certain: first-gen students are persistent, determined, and resourceful. With the motivation to make the transition between high school and college, the possibilities are endless. The number one thing  to remember –  never be afraid to ask for help along the way. Good luck!