A First-Generation Student’s Guide To College

What You Should Know Before You Go

Not everyone’s experience as a first-generation college applicant, college student, or college graduate are the same. Some of us need more help at different parts of the journey; some know more than enough right from the very start. Some of us know just enough to accomplish whatever it is that we first set out to do, but not too much more.

I didn’t actually know I was a first-generation college student until halfway through college.

I’d heard the term of course, and I knew my parents hadn’t gone, but my older sister was starting her 3rd year when I enrolled.

Plus, I had plenty of aunts, uncles, and cousins who’d finished school before I was even thought up.

What did first-generation even mean? I had no clue.

I’m hoping to write a brief guide, in the form of an eBook, for first-generation college applicants who are as lost as I was. Here’s a brief overview of what I hope to share, as well as draft one of the first chapter.

If you’re currently a first-generation college applicant, college student, or college graduate, I’d love to hear from you.

What do you wish you knew before you applied, enrolled, or graduated?

Table of Contents:

I. What type of student am I? (You are here!)

II. What is college like? (Coming soon!)

III. How do I choose the right school? (Coming soon!)

IV. Alumni Perspectives: What I Wish I’d Known Before I Went To College

V. How do I apply? (Coming soon!)

VI. What should I know before I go? (Coming soon!)

VII. What should I do while I’m in college? (Coming soon!)

VIII. Additional Resources (Coming soon!)

What type of student am I?

Colleges don’t all use the same definition for what it means to be a “first-generation” applicant or college student. In some programs, you’re considered first-generation if neither of your parents graduated from college.

They could’ve, however, enrolled and attended courses.

For other programs, you’re only first-generation if neither of your parents ever attended college at all.

They never enrolled or even started.

Even if you have older brothers or sisters who attended college, you are a first-generation student if your parents didn’t go to school.

Three Types of Students

I want to start first by pretending that only three distinctive types of students– or student personalities rather– exist. I’ll do this because my opinions and recommendations may change depending on what type of student you think you are.

Let’s meet student 1, 2, and 3. We’ll call them Sam, Pat, and Adrian.

Meet Sam, Pat, and Adrian.

Student 1: “Sam” 

Sam is an exceptional student, and nothing less than Harvard, Princeton, or Yale will do. Sam has always excelled at school and was born and bred to be successful. For Sam, this means an elite Ivy-league education followed by a quick ascension to a high-profile career.

Sam plans to earn at least six figures annually and is inspired by those who’ve created their own multi-million dollar companies or those who’ve become self-made millionaires. It isn’t necessarily money, power, or status that Sam cares about, but a real commitment to excellence.

Sam is determined to be the best.

Student 2: “Pat”

Pat doesn’t mind school and understands that college is the only logical next best step. It’s a means to an end, and Pat doesn’t mind the challenge or the opportunity. Pat is pretty focused and is usually a serious student who wants to live a good life, just like everyone else.

For Pat, this means having a good job and making a decent salary. Pat has heard some college counselors advise students to apply for both “reach” and “safety” schools. Once Pat knows a little bit more about the process, Pat will apply to a combination of public and private schools.

Georgetown or Brown would be cool, but the University of Houston or Sam Houston State University might be more affordable, especially since he’s from Houston. Pat is open to community colleges, but thinks there might be more opportunity at a state school or private school.

Pat just wants to have a good life with a modest home. Pat could be an engineer, an architect, or a Math teacher. It really depends on where the path eventually leads. Pat does prefer a career path that’s clearly defined, something practical.

Student 3: “Adrian”

College seems like a decision Adrian isn’t sure it’s best to make. Adrian has plenty of plans and goals for the future, but they fluctuate and change. Adrian feels pressure to attend college, but still thinks it might be kind of cool.

So far, Adrian’s grades are okay, but nothing too impressive. It might be better to work full-time and go to school part-time, but Adrian is worried about missing out on whatever college is supposed to be like.

Adrian knows plenty of people who didn’t go to college, and they seem okay.

There doesn’t seem to be too much difference from those who did and those who didn’t. Adrian is fine going to whichever school is closest to Adrian’s parents’ house. Adrian just wants to be free to make whatever choices feel right in the moment. Things have a way of working out in the end.

Which student are you?

Do you resonate more with Sam, Pat, or Adrian?

Student Desired College Does college = future success? Overall life objective Aspires for
Sam Ivy-League only Yes The Best. Excellence.
Pat Public or private Yes Modest living. A good life.
Adrian Public, if necessary. Not sure Not necessarily Freedom. Exploration.

Author: Anj.

Hi! I'm Anj. Thanks for visiting my page. I'm an aspiring writer, former teacher, and Houston native. I've worked in education for more than 15 years. This blog was inspired by (1) my first year teaching experiences and (2) my lovely student loan debt. Feel free to connect if you'd like to share a story about race, power, or privilege.