Preparing for college as a first generation student

College aged woman holding a red notebook

Heading off to college is an exciting adventure, and the more prepared you are for college, the easier that transition to school will be. If it’s your first time going to college or you’re the first in your family to go to college, you may not know what to expect. Sometimes this can impact your success in school.

Data by the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that first-generation students have a tendency to graduate at lower rates than their peers with parents who earned a four-year college degree. Experts agree that the reasons for this are twofold: social and economic.

"Many of them are very academically prepared, they're really talented. It's just sometimes they don't have the information they need to go to the best school for them, to understand the financial aid process, to understand the right questions to ask along the way," Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-Generation Student Success, recently told US News

For those who are attending college for the first time as first generation students, these college preparation tips should help guide you as you head off to school this fall. 

Tackle Financial Aid

One of your top priorities should be to make sure that your financial aid applications are complete. Start by applying for financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once you’ve completed your FAFSA application, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report which outlines the amount of money that your family is expected to contribute toward your education. The financial aid offices of each college that you’ve applied to (and included on your FAFSA application) will then send you a letter outlining the financial aid package that they’re offering you. This package can consist of federal student loans, grants, and scholarships, and you’ll need to accept or deny the various types of aid that you’re offered. 

While applying for financial aid is the first step in receiving federal grants and loans, you should try to minimize the number of student loans that you need to take out. You can do this by applying for scholarships and grants, which you don’t have to pay back. Your high school may have a running list of community scholarships available, and your college may also have information on scholarships available to all students or available by major. You can also use online scholarship database sites like FastWeb to assist your search. 

Find Peer Support

For most college students, navigating a new higher education environment can be difficult. This is especially true for first generation college students who cannot rely on their parents’ insider knowledge for support. This is what makes peer support all the more important. In fact, recent studies suggest that peer support is vital to the success of first generation students.  

“[This study] demonstrates that both personal/career motivation and a lack of needed support from peers are important predictors of college GPA, adjustment, and, possibly, commitment to college,” authors Jessica M. Dennis, Jean S. Phinney, and Lizette Ivy Chuateco conclude in their 2005 study.

Make sure to prioritize finding and maintaining a supportive peer network during the time your in school This will help you better navigate some of the unique challenges that come from attending college for the first time. 

Upgrade Your Tech Knowledge and Skills

Having the right tech knowledge and equipment can make you more successful in college. If you don’t yet have an updated laptop, you may need to add one to your shopping list before you head off to college. Some colleges and programs provide their students with laptops, so check into the details and policies of your school. If you need to supply your own laptop, keep an eye on back-to-school specials or check out refurbished options at major retailers to save money. 

Your smartphone is another important tool that can help you learn. You can record audio on your smartphone and later transfer the files to your computer, which can make note-taking during and reviewing lectures easier. Before doing this, though, check with your professor to make sure that they allow their classes to be recorded. 

Take some time to familiarize yourself with cloud storage, too. After spending weeks working on that term paper, a computer virus or other tech issue could mean you need to start all over unless you have your files backed up. There are many cloud storage options that allow for continuous backup, including Office 365. If you’re working on a group assignment, cloud file storage options like Google Docs can allow you and other students to all work on the same file simultaneously. 

Focus on Your Health and Well-Being

You’ll probably need to schedule a visit with your doctor before you go to college. While every college’s vaccination requirements are different, most schools will require that you be vaccinated to protect you against meningitis. You’ll need to provide the school with proof of your vaccination history, and you may also need to provide proof of a recent physical examination. 

This may also be the perfect time to look into which sexually transmitted disease (STD) infections are prevalent in your area. With nearly 20 million new STD infections occurring in the country every year, it’s important to be aware of how to keep yourself safe, as well as to consider appropriate testing for you or for a partner. 

College can also be tough on your mental health. Familiarize yourself with some stress-relieving techniques now, such as getting in some exercise and cutting back on the caffeine, so you can rely on these techniques in college. Try to establish good habits now, like going out for a walk every evening or doing a little meditation each day, so those good habits are already in place by the time you go to college. Focusing on self-love can also help to keep you confident and true to yourself when you head off to school. 

Spend Quality Time with Family

It’s easy to get swept up into the last-minute chaos of getting ready for college. There’s so much to do, and of course you want to spend some time with your friends before you all part ways for your different schools. 

But don’t forget to dedicate some time to your family, too. Soon you’ll be studying miles away from your family, and though you may not think it now, you’ll miss them more than you’d imagine. Set aside a few days strictly for family time. Take a mini road trip, go on a quick vacation, or hold that annual summertime cookout that’s become a family tradition. 

You may be feeling a mix of emotions about college. You’re probably excited, anxious, and even a little overwhelmed. That’s all normal, but to get yourself ready, make a to-do list, put the above tips to use, and enjoy all of the changes that are to come.

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