College Hub
I'm a...

First-Gen: Preparing for the College Application

tl;dr: Being college-ready requires preparation, perseverance, and patience, but there are many resources out there to help you succeed. Start by creating a timeline and taking advantage of free resources, like college application fee waivers and Educational Opportunity Programs. Be sure to also learn the campus's unspoken rules and take advantage of entrance interviews & financial aid when possible.

Often, first-generation students are categorized simply as those who are the first in their families to attend college. However, many institutions have chosen to use the federal definition, which states that first-generation students come from families where their biological parents did not complete a four-year college degree.

As a first-gen student, you will face new experiences, both opportunities and obstacles. It may seem hard to go through an experience your parents have not done before, but we hope you know you are strong and amazing for getting through this all! We hope this document can help answer some of your questions about the college process and give tips on how to face it with a specific first-gen lens.

Take a look at Daniella Garcia Loos' story "How I Got into a Top 20 University" to see how she succeeded in her college journey!

📅A First-Generation Student's Timeline

Being college-ready requires preparation, perseverance, and patience. You are going to do amazing!

Months Leading into Senior Year

  • High school students in their senior year are focused on finishing strong while also looking ahead to college. First-generation students may have additional responsibilities relating to family and work. Students can use the summer to research schools, take virtual tours, and visit campuses when possible. Students can also take career quizzes to get a sense of possible majors.

August: Create a Map

  • First-generation college students often only apply to one school. However, online resources allow students to tour many schools and find multiple options that suit their needs. Many first-gen students can receive a college application fee waiver. Students can begin thinking about writing essays, requesting transcripts, and asking teachers to write recommendations.

September: Write and Compile Essays

  • First-generation students can use essays to tell their stories. Students should review prompts early and spend a few weeks crafting a thoughtful outline before completing essays.

October: Submit the FAFSA

  • The FAFSA determines students’ eligibility for financial aid. Students can complete the FAFSA any time after October 1. Students include financial information about their family or themselves if they qualify as independent adults. Many first-generation students qualify for both Pell Grants and work-study funding.
  • Students should complete the FAFSA as early as possible since many schools award federal aid on a first-come, first-served basis.

Check out the resources about FAFSA on Fiveable's website!

October: Take Entrance Exams

  • Most schools require college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT. Many first-generation students may qualify for fee waivers for both of these exams. Students with strong vocabulary and writing typically take the SAT, while those who favor analytical and scientific reasoning take the ACT.

November: Request and Gather Recommendations

  • Students should provide their recommenders with the recommendation form at least one month before the deadline, as many teachers and coaches write letters for multiple students.

December: Submit Applications

  • Students must submit early-decision applications by December. The regular application period typically runs from January through March. Students should pay attention to any rolling admissions schools. These schools make decisions as they receive applications, and spots may fill up quickly.

February: Entrance Interviews

  • Not all schools require interviews. However, first-generation college students should take advantage of this step when possible as it allows them to demonstrate their unique qualities. Some schools conduct entrance interviews on campus, although students in other locations may interview with a nearby alumnus.

March: Choose a School

  • Most schools send all acceptance letters by April. As students begin receiving acceptance letters, they should consider factors such as location, alumni success rates, and program cost versus awarded aid.

April: Review and Accept Financial Aid

  • All students, not just first-gen college students, should learn how much funding is available to them. Students’ acceptance letters provide information on available federal aid and internal scholarships. Students should then add any external scholarships or grants to this amount to see how much money they must pay each academic year. Some students may decide to take out loans, while others may consider a more affordable school.

May: Final Steps

  • After submitting formal acceptance, students can complete a few more steps. For example, they may need to find a job, take AP exams, determine where they will live, or send final transcripts.

💡College Success Tips

1. Leverage Free Resources

  • School counselors can help students articulate their career interests, guide course schedules to match college aspirations and keep students ahead of the curve on things like entrance exams, applications, and financial aid.

2. Take Advantage of Educational Opportunity Programs

  • Educational Opportunity Programs (EOPs), which are offered by many colleges, can help bridge the gap between high school and college for low-income and first-generation students. In the summer between high school and college, EOPs prepare students for the challenge of college coursework. These academic boot camps are impactful even for FGCS leaving high school with good grades and strong SAT/ACT scores. EOPs are typically available to in-state students at public colleges, and eligibility is based on family income and demonstrated student interest.

3. Learn the Campus's Unspoken Rules

  • It's not just academics that can stymie first-gen students; there are also unspoken campus rules that dictate how students can interact with professors and take advantage of different opportunities.
  • Introductory courses to academia's unwritten rules teach first-gen students how to effectively utilize the college network. More than just etiquette lessons, these classes interrogate cultural capital, empower students against impostor syndrome, and champion degree completion by examining the economic benefit of graduating.

✏️First-Generation/Low-income College Student Programs

I'm FirstMentors!Provides inspiration, information, and support on the road to and through college.
StriveMentors, Financial Aid students with financial needs with a mentor to help them navigate the financial aid process. Students in college can be matched with a mentor for support to help them graduate and prepare for career opportunities.
First-Gen FellowsMentors, Undergrad, Social Justice Career summer program for first-gen undergraduate students who intend to pursue careers in social justice. Fellows receive hands-on civil rights experience, participate in weekly advocacy training and professional development seminars, and join a growing community of emerging leaders in the FirstGEN Alumni Network.
America Needs YouMentors, Undergrad intensive two-year program for high-achieving, low-income, first-generation college students.
Minds MatterCounseling, Mentors core focus of the Senior program is to prepare mentees for the college application process.
Summer SearchCounseling, Mentors as sophomores, Summer Search students are paired with a professional staff mentor for 1-on-1 mentoring conversations.
Center for First-Generation Student SuccessCounseling, Mentors context for the current state of first-generation student success, shares current conversations and scholarly literature, offers access to programs and services, and highlights opportunities for engagement with the Center and committed colleagues.
First Generation FoundationCounseling first-generation college students to colleges and universities and organizations dedicated to helping 1st Gen students succeed.
First in the FamilyFinancial Aid, Mentors, Counseling national nonprofit, supporting adolescent learning in and out of school.

Guide Outline

Check out these other guides that you might need.