What does it mean to be a first-generation college student?

08/11/202310 minute read
What does it mean to be a first-generation college student?

The idea of being a "first-generation college student" resonates with those embarking on an educational journey through uncharted territory within their family. It signifies individuals whose parents or guardians haven't pursued a traditional four-year college degree in the United States. However, it’s important to understand the various nuances in defining and identifying first-generation students, especially within the context of college applications.

What is a First-Generation College Student?

The definition of a first-generation college student is fairly consistent across many institutions, including Ivy League and top-tier universities. Generally, it refers to students whose parents or guardians haven't attained a bachelor’s degree. But interpretations may slightly differ among colleges. Some extend this definition to cases where neither parent attended any form of higher education, such as community college or trade school.

For example, the University of California system defines a first-generation college student as anyone whose parents did not receive a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. On the other hand, California community colleges consider you “first-generation” only if your parents never attended college at all. Accordingly, the UCs list a higher percentage of first-generation college students compared to the community college system.(1)

For most schools, if neither of your parents has a college degree, you’ll be considered a first-generation college student.

How do colleges know if you are a first-generation college student?

Usually, college applications ask you directly if your parents attended or graduated from college. The Common App asks about your parents’ occupation, employment status, and education level. If applicable, they also ask which college(s) your parents attended and how many degrees they earned.

Your status as a first-generation college student may also come up in other ways on your application. For example, your guidance counselor may make a note of it, or a teacher may mention it in one of your recommendation letters.

You may also decide to address your experience as a first-generation college student in your Personal Statement or one of your supplemental essays.

Unique Challenges Faced by First-Generation College Students

First-generation college students often encounter unique challenges throughout their educational journey. These range from navigating the intricacies of the college application process to managing the academic rigors and expectations of higher education.

Universities recognize the hurdles faced by first-generation students. That’s why they may offer tailored support systems, mentorship programs, and resources to help them navigate the academic, social, and financial aspects of college life.

1. Navigating the Unfamiliar Terrain 

Stepping into higher education can be overwhelming for first-generation college students. Many lack prior family experience or guidance. Even the most supportive parents may not know how to help their children navigate the college application process. And not all parents are supportive of their children’s college aspirations.

This makes the entire process — from college selection to application procedures — an unfamiliar and daunting journey.

2. Financial Strain 

First-generation college students are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds.(2)

This can make the cost of tuition, housing, and textbooks a significant burden. Balancing work, academics, and personal life to make ends meet adds an extra layer of stress.

3. Cultural and Social Adjustment 

The shift to college life might feel isolating, particularly for those whose families have no experience with higher education. Students who come from a background where higher education is the norm may feel more “at home” in the culture of academia.

The cultural gap between home life and the academic environment can make it a challenge for first-generation students to find a sense of belonging and adapt to the college culture.

4. Lack of Support Structures

Often, first-generation students lack the support networks that students from college-educated families might take for granted. The absence of a support system familiar with the complexities of academic life can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome and self-doubt.

5. Academic Preparedness 

Some first-generation students may face academic challenges due to disparities in pre-college education resources. Their school may not have offered resources like AP courses, dynamic extracurriculars (ECs), and accessible college counseling.

A lack of preparedness may translate to fewer opportunities on campus. First-generation college students are less likely to hold formal leadership roles, conduct research projects with faculty members, complete paid internships and study abroad than continuing-generation college students.(2)

6. Mental Health Struggles

The accumulation of these challenges can take a toll on mental health for first-generation college students. The stress of adapting to a new environment, handling financial pressures, and academic expectations can lead to anxiety and mental health issues.

Understanding and addressing these challenges are critical in supporting the success of first-generation college students. Initiatives focused on mentorship, financial aid, academic resources, and mental health support can enhance their college experiences and ensure a more inclusive and supportive educational environment.

Impact on College Experience and Beyond

The journey of a first-generation college student is not just about the challenges they face. It's also about the profound impact their experiences have on their college years and beyond.

1. Diverse Perspectives

Despite facing hurdles, first-generation students bring unique perspectives to their college communities. Their diverse backgrounds enrich the academic environment, fostering a breadth of ideas.

2. Trailblazers and Role Models

First-generation college students are trailblazers in their families. They inspire siblings, cousins, and future generations to pursue higher education. Their success becomes a beacon of hope and motivation. 

3. Professional and Personal Growth

Navigating the challenges of being a first-generation student fosters skills like resilience, adaptability, and resourcefulness. These students may exhibit strong work ethics, determination, and the ability to thrive in diverse environments — invaluable assets in their future careers.

4. Creating Positive Change 

Empowered by their experiences, many first-generation graduates actively engage in societal change. They champion educational equity, advocate for underrepresented communities, and strive to bridge the gaps in access to higher education.

First-generation students not only overcome obstacles but also contribute significantly to the educational landscape and society at large. Their journey paves the way for a more inclusive and diverse academic environment.

Blog Banner
Blog Banner

How does being a first-generation college student impact your college applications?

Colleges do factor first-generation status into admissions decisions. If you choose to let them know that you’re a first generation student, they will keep this in mind while assessing your academics and extracurriculars. While it might be an advantage in some instances, understand that being first-generation is just one aspect of a student’s holistic application.

Universities strive to create diverse student bodies, valuing the diverse perspectives and experiences that first-generation students bring. This recognition often reflects positively on applications. But it’s still important to showcase aspects beyond being first-generation to present a competitive profile.

Here are some of the ways that being a first-generation college student can affect your applications:

  1. It can be your “hook.” Though it won’t be a shoe in to any institution, being first-generation may grab the attention of admissions officers and help you stand out.
  2. It can provide context. If your ECs and academics aren’t as impressive as those of your peers, your first-generation status may help explain that. For example, maybe you had to get a job after school to contribute to your family’s income. Perhaps you couldn’t afford tutoring or didn’t know about free resources available to you. Of course, never lie on your application. But if any of these things are true for you, sharing them can provide context.
  3. It can be a backdrop for your accomplishments. As a first-generation student, anything you’ve accomplished will be considered against the backdrop of your comparatively disadvantaged position. If you manage to earn awards or execute outstanding ECs, those will seem all the more impressive considering the potential obstacles you faced.
  4. It can help convey your personal qualities. As mentioned above, first-generation students are often resilient, adaptable, and resourceful. If you choose to write about an experience related to your first-generation status in one of your essays, you can directly showcase these qualities. Even if you do not choose to do so, a simple disclosure of your status can implicitly demonstrate these qualities to those reviewing your application.
  5. It can serve as inspiration for your essays. First-generation students have a wealth of life experiences to draw from. Sharing personal anecdotes, challenges, and triumphs while highlighting the impact of their background can create compelling narratives that resonate with admissions officers.
  6. It’s part of your unique perspective. Colleges don’t want a class full of clones — they aim for a diverse student body. Since your background as a first-generation student differs from the majority of applicants, it may be considered with more interest. 

The Bottom Line

As a first-generation college student, you are a trailblazer. You’ve likely faced unique challenges, such as financial strain and a lack of support structures. Since your parents haven’t gone to college, you may not be familiar with the culture of academia or the complex college admissions process.

But it’s not just about the challenges. As a first-generation college student, you are likely resilient and adaptable. You bring a unique perspective that universities are seeking to include on their campuses. Your status as a first-generation student may be viewed positively on your application and help you provide context on both your challenges and your accomplishments.

If you’re a first-generation college student aiming for an Ivy League or top 30 university, reach out to Crimson today. During a free consultation, one of our academic advisors can let you know what resources are available to you and how we can help you on your journey to your dream school.