Admit-A-Bull // Official Admissions Blog

How to Support First-Generation Students in the College Search


If you’re a counselor at a community-based organization, you understand the cultural and social contexts of the students you serve. Students may even view your advice as more trustworthy than that of teachers and high school counselors. This puts you in a unique position to help them prepare for and apply to college. What’s the best way to achieve this? Here are a few ideas to help you support first-generation students in the college search.

Review the Types of Colleges Available

For students with limited knowledge of the higher education system, start with an explanation of the various types of institutions, including community, liberal arts, technical, public, private, religious-affiliated, research, in-state, and out-of-state colleges. Encourage students to attend local college fairs to get as much information as possible about their options.

Next, explore which colleges may be the best fit for them based on their interests, academic abilities, intended career, desired distance from home, etc. Reviewing options together can make the process a bit less overwhelming and encourage students to persist with the college search.

Try to help students whittle their list down to a few target schools before they begin the application process.

Avoid the Cost Trap

The cost of college is a top consideration for this group. However, you should watch for (and pre-empt) students' preconceptions that they can't afford college at all, or alternatively, that they will easily get full scholarships.

Instead of cost, focus on finding the right fit. Make sure students know that public universities aren’t their only options. Private colleges may be financially feasible thanks to scholarships, grants, and financial aid. Use net price calculators to show them how.

Encourage Campus Tours

Campus tours are a tried-and-true method to find a good fit, narrow down choices, and help students see themselves as college students. In addition, visiting with family members can give everyone an opportunity to ask questions of administrators and students and ensure a good comfort level with the institution.

For colleges that may be too far away for an in-person visit, encourage your students to take advantage of virtual tours for an up-close look at campus. Then follow up with an admissions recruiter for additional information.

Explore Special Programs for First-Generation Students

To further narrow down the choices, it’s helpful to identify colleges (like USF) with programs designed specifically to help first-generation students gain admission and succeed. These programs can take many forms:

  • Partnerships with local high schools that provide guaranteed admission to program participants.
  • Summer programs that help first-generation students adjust to life on campus, receive academic support, and get a head start on coursework before the fall semester.
  • 2+2 programs that allow students to start at a community college and earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year college to complete a bachelor’s degree.

These programs aren’t a good fit for all students. But for those who may need additional support during the transition to college, they can be a critical step on the path to graduation.

First generation student at USF walking around campus.

Review the Application Process and Establish Timelines

According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 25 percent of prospective first-generation students have not started their college planning by May of their junior year. This means you will likely be faced with a compressed timeline for exploring and applying to colleges.

Once your student identifies target schools, quickly map out a plan and deadlines for each stage of the process:

  • Preparing for required admissions tests (SAT, ACT, TOEFL, etc.)
  • Registering for and taking required admissions tests
  • Completing applications
  • Paying application fees or submitting fee waivers
  • Submitting supporting materials (transcripts, test scores, essays, etc.)
  • Receiving application decisions
  • Selecting and committing to a college

For students not familiar with higher education, this will be the first time they’re hearing admissions terms like Common Application, early decision, priority deadline, etc. Explain the process in layman’s terms and avoid jargon where possible.

Identify Waivers for Common Admissions Fees

Some of your students may be concerned about the costs associated with test preparation, test registration, application fees, and enrollment deposits. Let them know that there are fee waivers for students with limited incomes:

  • SAT Fee Waiver: Offers two free SAT tests. Also accepted by many colleges in lieu of an application fee.
  • ACT Fee Waiver: Offers four free ACT tests and access to a free test prep course. Also accepted by many colleges in lieu of an application fee.
  • NACAC Application Fee Waiver: Accepted by many colleges in lieu of an application fee.
  • NACAC Enrollment Deposit Waiver: Accepted by many colleges in lieu of the enrollment deposit used to hold a student’s place in the class.

Khan Academy also offers a free online SAT test prep course that’s personalized for each student.

Once the plan is in motion, check in with students regularly to assess progress, offer assistance, and ensure they’re meeting deadlines.

Explain the Financial Aid Process and Establish Timelines

Applying for financial aid and scholarships is particularly important for first-generation students. With 77 percent coming from households with incomes under $50,000, they typically have greater financial needs than other students.

Similar to the application process, it’s important to explain how to apply for financial aid in layman’s terms and define any unfamiliar concepts like FAFSA, expected family contribution, grants, work-study, etc. Sketch out a timeline for submitting the FAFSA and any supporting documentation (such as tax returns), and identify when financial aid offers can be expected.

Finding and applying for outside scholarships can take a bit more legwork than applying for financial aid. Explain to your students that it’s worth the work because scholarships, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. Scholarships specifically for first-generation students may be an ideal place to start the hunt.

Scholarship application requirements and deadlines vary widely, so it’s critical to help your students stay organized and avoid missing deadlines. Touch base periodically to offer assistance and encouragement.

Finally, when offer letters arrive, help students compare award packages and determine which provides the best bang for their buck. Be sure to take into account factors such as the amount of gift-aid, overall out-of-pocket costs, and student loan debt upon graduation.

Involve Students’ Families

Parents who lack “college knowledge” are much less likely to understand the cost and process for attending college. However, it’s important to involve them in the college search to increase the chances that a student will successfully apply to and enroll in college.

When speaking with families, you will encounter a wide range of attitudes about college, from supportive to obstructive. You may have to explain college search essentials or even make the case for the value of higher education and why it’s worth the cost. Start with the basics:

  • Students must often take college admission tests.
  • Different colleges have different admission criteria and offerings.
  • There is financial help available to pay for college.
  • Colleges in the United States may differ from those in other countries.
  • There are advantages and disadvantages to living at or away from home.
  • Colleges offer support — counseling, tutoring, academic advisors, residence hall advisors — at no extra cost.

Some parents and/or families from other cultures feel uncomfortable with a policy of only talking to students. When possible, communicate with both first-generation students and their parents. Additionally, if your organization hosts events like financial aid workshops, be sure to schedule them at times that are convenient for working parents so everyone can attend together.

At the end of the day, it’s a group effort to guide students along the path to college admission.

An African American student sitting in front of a computer search for colleges

Get Connected for More Support Resources

Looking for ways to connect with CBO colleagues and discover resources that help you continue your rewarding work? Connect with programs like Cappex’s College Greenlight or join NACAC’s special interest group for community-based organizations.

USF can help, too. Our Office of Outreach and Access is committed to increasing college access for first-generation students, and we offer a number of admissions resources, college preparation events, and student life and culture programs throughout the year to further this goal. For more information on any of our programs or ideas on how we can help you support underserved students, connect with us at or 813-974-3350.