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Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Who is Considered a First Generation College Student?

When applying to college, there are some phrases that you’ll hear that seem clear, but upon second thought may be up for interpretation. Some students wonder if they qualify as “low income”, others aren’t sure how to answer questions about race, and some might wonder if they count as a first generation college student. 


In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the term “first generation college student,” discussing who qualifies for this designation, where this term is used on your application, and whether it really matters. Keep reading to learn more. 


How is First Generation College Student Defined?


The Department of Education, in the Higher Education Act of 1965 and 1998, clearly defines a first generation college student as a student both of whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree, or in the case of students who live with and are supported by only one parent, a student whose only such parent did not complete a bachelor’s degree.


This may seem fairly clearcut, but it’s important to know that it is not always up to the Department of Education to decide whether a student qualifies as a first generation college student. Some colleges have their own definitions of this term. Some colleges count students as first generation college students only if neither parent attended college at all after high school, regardless of whether they received a degree. Some colleges consider the completion of an associate’s degree enough to discount further generations from being considered for this designation at all.  


In these cases, the college will almost always clearly define the term within the question, but if you aren’t sure, you can always contact the admissions office and ask about their specific definition. Always be certain that you know the exact definition as used by the college, scholarship, or other program to which you’re applying. 


Where Does a College Application Ask About First Generation Status?


On most college applications, there is no specific question asking if you are a first generation college student. Instead, there are general questions about your parents’ level of education. On the Common App, for example, there is a drop down menu under the family section that asks you to indicate the level of education of Parent 1 and/or Parent 2. Many college applications also have a field for you to choose the college(s) that your parents attended.


Using this information, college admissions committees will decide for themselves if you qualify as a first generation college student under their definition. That being said, if your life has been impacted by your status as a first generation college student, this can make a great topic for a personal statement or other essay. In these cases, your status will be clear through your own words. 


Does Being a First Generation College Student Impact Your Shot at Acceptance?


Being a first generation college student absolutely plays a role in college admissions. Many colleges now participate in a holistic approach to admissions, meaning that it’s not just what a student accomplishes that matters—it’s also the context of those accomplishments and who that student is as a person. 


Students who are first generation often face unique challenges that make their accomplishments even more impressive. When a college knows that you are a first generation student, your achievements may set you even further apart.


What Do First-Gen Students Need to Know About Applying to College and Beyond?


First generation college students should know that their status as such makes them stand-out in a positive way during the application process. It is nothing to be ashamed of or to hide. Instead, it’s something to be proud of and something to emphasize, if anything. Colleges value diversity, and first generation students bring a unique perspective to their schools. 


In addition, there are specific resources available to first generation college students. Many scholarships or grants are earmarked just for first-gen students, helping to ease financial burdens. The benefits don’t end at finances, though. There are often specific programs at colleges to help guide first-gen students throughout their college years. For example, at Duke, the 1G Network is a group of undergraduate, first-generation college students who meet regularly for support and knowledge development. Harvard offers a First Generation Student Union to provide resources, mentorship, and support specifically to first-gen students.


As you create a college list, keep an eye out for schools that provide resources for first generation college students. Not only might these schools help support you as a student; they are also schools that clearly value your experience and want to have students like you on campus. 


Resources for First Generation College Students


To learn more about how your status as a first generation college student may impact your application, check out these CollegeVine posts:


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

Resources for First-Generation College Applicants

Will I Fit In at College as a First-Generation Student?

Approaching the Cost of Visiting Colleges as a First-Generation Student


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.