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How Does Being A First-Generation College Student Affect My Application?

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For better or for worse, applying to college is a family affair. As we’ve covered on the CollegeVine blog in the past, some of the questions you’ll encounter on your college applications will ask for information not only about you, but also about your parents. Among other pieces of information, you’ll be asked to state the level of education that each of your parents has reached.


Colleges have various reasons for requesting information about your parents’ educational progress, but the main reason is so that they can put the rest of your application into context. If you’re what’s known as a “first-generation college student,” meaning that your parents did not graduate from college, that fact may affect how colleges view your high-school background and the accomplishments you list on the application.


Do you think you might qualify as a first-generation college student? Read on for more information about who is included within this category, how colleges will view your first-generation status, and how this designation might influence how your application is considered.


Who is a first-generation college student?


In its most basic sense, the term “first-generation college student” refers to an individual whose parents do not have college degrees. If neither of your parents attended college at all, or if they took some classes but didn’t graduate, you’ll be considered a first-generation college student.


As we mentioned above, generally, college applications will ask you directly if your parents attended or graduated from college. Being a first-generation college student is also something that may come up in other ways on your application. For instance, it may be mentioned in one of your teacher or guidance counselor recommendations. You may also choose to address your background and any effects you believe it’s had on you in one of your essays. (Later in this post, we’ll go over some more details about how identifying yourself as a first-generation college student in this way may be helpful to you in the application process.)


First-generation college students may theoretically come from a range of different socioeconomic, ethnic, and geographic categories— all the term specifically means is that your parents didn’t graduate from college. However, being a first-generation college student may indicate a number of other things about you as a person and a student which are factors of interest to the colleges to which you’ll be applying.


While every person’s individual situation is different, many first-generation college students experience systemic disadvantages which may affect their ability to access a college education. If your parents have little to no college experience, for example, it may be more difficult for them to help you navigate the college application process than for parents who are familiar with the world of higher education. Parents who didn’t go to college generally won’t have a personal well of experience to draw from in order to advise their children about the college admissions process. They may be less familiar than some other parents with the timelines, requirements, and expectations of competitive colleges in the present day, which can be confusing and stressful to manage even for experienced families.


Being a first-generation college student may also mean that you come from a lower-income family, which of course has a significant impact upon the challenges you personally face. This may mean that you haven’t been able to afford the same experiences as some of your fellow applicants. If your community in general is also lower-income, your school may not have had the resources to offer such opportunities as AP courses, involved extracurriculars, and accessible college counseling.


By designating you as a first-generation college student, colleges aren’t making a judgement about whether your background is “good” or “bad”. They’re just clarifying that the set of experiences and opportunities you’ve had may be different from those of your peers whose parents attended college. If colleges know this fact about you, they’ll be able to get a more detailed picture of your background and what your achievements mean in context.


How will colleges view my first-generation status?


If the colleges to which you’re applying know that you’re a first-generation college student, this is a fact that they can take into account when assessing the accomplishments you list in your application. Many colleges practice holistic admissions processes, which seek to get to know applicants as whole individuals, and your first-generation status is part of that holistic understanding of your background.


You certainly won’t be directly penalized by colleges for being a first-generation college student. Being first-generation might cause you to miss out on some opportunities for networking during the application process, but it’s not something that colleges will hold against you. In fact, you may even find that your first-generation status is viewed as a positive thing by the colleges to which you’re applying.


Being a first-generation college student is one example of a “hook,” or a factor that may cause admissions officers to pay extra attention to your application. If you’re first-generation, you’ve probably overcome some obstacles to even apply to a competitive college, and this fact may cause the readers of your application to sit up and take particular notice of what you’ve accomplished in the face of these obstacles.


If your traditional qualifications, such as grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, aren’t as great as those of some of your fellow applicants, your first-generation status may be a mitigating factor for colleges. If your family income level means that you need to have a paid job during the school year, you’ll have less time in your schedule to devote to homework and extracurricular pursuits. If your standardized test scores are on the low side, it may be because you couldn’t afford specialized tutoring— or maybe you didn’t even realize that such a thing existed.


While no one is saying that families who didn’t attend college can’t effectively assist their children in applying to college, the process is complicated and labor-intensive even for the most prepared parents. Applicants who have a long family history of being college-educated have a well of knowledge and experience to draw upon for help that first-generation applicants may not be able to access. As a first-generation college student, you may simply have less background knowledge about what you need to do to put forward a competitive college application.


Remember, colleges choose to accept certain students based upon not only what they’ve accomplished academically and personally, but also what they’ll bring to enrich that college. They’re interested in creating diverse campus communities that benefit intellectually and socially from the inclusion of a variety of different perspectives. Demonstrated academic ability matters, but so do many other factors— that’s why college applications ask so many questions!


Your perspective as a first-generation college student gives you a unique voice and set of experiences to share, and colleges value that fact. A college campus would be a pretty boring place to live and study if everyone had the same background, and applicants who differ in one way or another from the “traditional” applicant profile may get some extra interest from colleges because of this. In this sense, being a first-generation college student is similar to being an underrepresented minority in terms of how it is viewed by colleges.

What effect will being first-generation have upon my application?


As we’ve gone over, being first-generation is unlikely to hurt your chances of admission to a competitive college. In fact, your first-generation status may not only attract the attention of admissions officers, but also cause your application to be viewed more positively.


Colleges may be more willing to forgive slightly lower grades, test scores, or extracurricular involvement for first-generation college students. If you’re a first-generation applicant, colleges will recognize that you likely came into the process with less background knowledge about college, and you may have had other obligations to deal with while attending high school.


If you do have a spectacular academic and extracurricular record as a first-generation college student, this is likely to especially impress admissions officers. They’ll know that, given the challenges you’ve likely had to face in your life, you’ve had to work even harder than most students to achieve this kind of success. That kind of hard work is something that every college values in its applicants.


It’s important to keep in mind that being a first-generation college student isn’t a panacea that will smooth over all the rough spots in your application. Your parents’ educational status is just one factor among many that will be considered when your application is read and evaluated, along with your academic performance, extracurricular involvement, recommendations, essays, and all the other parts of your application.


To get accepted at a competitive college as a first-generation college student, you still need to be an objectively strong candidate who is fully qualified to attend that college. Colleges need to know that you’ll be able not only to handle the academic challenges of attending college, but to positively contribute to the campus community with your ideas and your hard work.


However, since competitive colleges attract more qualified applicants than they can accept, having a hook like your first-generation status can help you stand out in the application pool. Again, it’s not a matter of getting preferential treatment— rather, it’s a matter of colleges understanding that each applicant’s background is different. Some students come to the college application process with more inherent advantages than others, and it’s not necessarily possible or fair to directly compare one applicant to the next without regard for context.


If you’re given the opportunity, it’s a good idea to inform the colleges to which you’re applying that you are a first-generation college student. Disclosing this fact can’t hurt you, and it may provide those colleges with a more nuanced understanding of your background and qualifications in a way that will ultimately improve your chances of admission.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.