3 Strategies for Helping First Gen Students Find Success

When we use the term “first gen students,” we are referring to high school students who are (or will be) the first in their families to attend college, excluding older siblings. It’s important to recognize that this group of students has some unique challenges that take a little extra thought, planning, and intentionality to help them overcome. As a high school counselor, you have an amazing opportunity to advocate for and empower first gen students in a way that can be truly life-changing. Read on to learn how.


1 – Identify and start conversations with first gen students early

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, “nearly 33% of students attending a college or university in the United States are first-generation.” There is a huge crop of first gen students coming through our doors who we get to help find success. But first, we need to identify who these students are. As counselors, we are always on the lookout for niche groups of students that have unique needs. Because of the barriers these students face, financially and emotionally, we need to start conversations with them early so we can build relational capital, educate, and become true advocates for their success.

Keep in mind that many students probably have never heard the term “first gen,” so the first step is education. When you sit down to do post-secondary planning with students, have your students fill out a survey with the question: are you a first-generation student? Many of these students don’t realize that there are abundant resources available to them. In my experience, first gen students are resilient and resourceful. When you come alongside a student who is already hardworking and motivated, a little boost can launch them into a place where goals can be reached and even surpassed!

By starting the conversation early, you can make sure that their needs are met, and when they come up against roadblocks, you can direct them to resources and people who can help them overcome challenges. Events like College Application Day or “Why Apply” Day can make a goal like going to college seem more attainable.

2- Position yourself as an advocate for first gen students

When you reach out and connect with first gen students, you have the opportunity to remind them that you are for them. You get to support them by being their cheerleader, and you also get to empower them through education. You get to help build a bridge where college begins to not only look attractive but also accessible for these students (more on making college attainable for students in this blog post). For example, these students may not know about things like fee waivers that are specifically designed to ease the financial weight of applications and testing for first gen students.

By identifying these students early, you can educate them about resources like fee waivers and free and reduced lunch, as well as important events like college application day, FAFSA night, and scholarship or essay workshops. Consider holding a first generation small group. I have already put together a 7-session plan for you on my TpT store, so be sure to check it out.

3- Connect first gen students to others in your community

When there are so many perceivable barriers to overcome, first gen students greatly benefit from hearing and connecting to other people’s success stories. This could be done with peers, such as through a small group setting focused on planning for college, or it could be building connections with adults in the community. Keep in mind that your personal network can be a huge asset to these students; think of people in your communities who could serve as an encouragement or inspiration to your students.

For example, one year I had a first gen student interested in being a lawyer, and I was able to connect her with own of my friends who is not only a lawyer but was also a first gen student. They were able to meet up for coffee and my student was able to witness firsthand that success is possible for people in her shoes! These connections can be incredibly powerful for students.

As high school counselors, we can foresee the barriers students may face in the application process or transition to college and do some groundwork to minimize those hardships. Think about the hidden language around budgeting, scholarships, and applications that students will encounter. If they’ve never heard the terminology, the whole thing can be entirely overwhelming. Consider using a resource like my transition to college presentation or financial aid literacy presentation to explain these concepts. Plus, here’s a Starter Scholarship Spreadsheet designed to help you and your students stay organized while pursuing financial aid.

When we start the conversation early, present ourselves as advocates, and connect our students to others, we provide invaluable opportunities for our first gen students. It is a true gift to get to make such an impact in students’ lives; the opportunities with first gen students are ripe for the picking!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to jump on the waitlist for my Clique Collaborative membership for exclusive members-only resources and professional development opportunities. Be sure to also listen to Episode 41 of my podcast for more on being a star advocate for first gen students.


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