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Best Practices: Advising First Generation Students in the College Admissions Process

There has been a lot of attention on helping first generation students navigate the college search process, and rightfully so! There is confusion for most high school juniors and seniors, let alone those who haven’t had anyone in their family navigate the process before. So let’s start there. When we talk about first generation students, we are referring to students whose parents have not obtained their four-year college degree. Here is what we recommend when working with this student population:

1. The first thing we can recommend when assisting first generation students is to not make assumptions! First generation students come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and aptitudes. Take the time to learn about each student’s achievements, involvements, and familiarity with the college search process. 

2. Reach out early. There is a lot of information to cover, and it may require that you modify how you help these students in the college search process. These students may not recognize how their skills and interests can be applied towards different majors and career paths. First generation students also may not know the importance of comparing college requirements. Teach them where to look for admission requirements, including what type of courses they should be taking at the high school level to prepare them.

3. Involve the family. First generation students are typically very close with their families and weigh their input very heavily on their decision-making. While often times families are supportive, this can put a lot of pressure on students to feel that they must succeed and make their families proud. Other times, families have become dependent on the additional support students provide at home and may encourage the student to stay close, or pressure them not to go to college at all. Find out where each family is and how the student may need supported in their decision-making. 

4. Watch your language! There is a lot of jargon that first generation college students and their families may not be familiar with. Take time to explain common language and acronyms, such as FAFSA and EFC. Don’t dumb it down, but find ways to present this information clearly. Information about financial aid can be specifically challenging. Make sure you’re taking the time to explain things they may see on their award letter, or where to find additional funding.

5. Help get first generation students get connected with colleges. We should be trying to build the relationships between school counselors and admission counselors. Take the time to get to know each other so that you can team up to best advise the students you’ll be working with.

If you ever have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your colleagues in Iowa ACAC and on our Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee. We are here to assist.

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