Helping a student become the first person in their family to attend college can be incredibly exciting and rewarding.

Since many of these students are forging a new path, they may not always know where to turn for guidance. Here are five steps that can help you assist your first-generation students as they plan for college.

1. Provide Group Counseling

In addition to individual counseling for these students, group sessions work really well. Patricia Pope, a former high school counselor and current clinical psychologist and counselor, says, “Discussing concerns in a small group setting is advantageous as questions often arise that an individual may not have considered but may prove useful.” Also, groups of peers can sometimes help keep students more accountable than deadlines and schedules you set one-on-one with your students.

2. Introduce Them to Current First-Generation College Students

It’s often helpful for students to meet successful peers because “these [college] students can provide a recent perspective on their own transition and current experiences to students in their final year of high school,” says Pope. High school students may be more comfortable asking questions and expressing their concerns about college with their peers than their counselors.

3. Involve the Parents

Anne Cochran, the site director for iLEAD NoHo, a public charter school in Van Nuys, California, says it’s critical to engage the help of parents or guardians. She suggests the best way to get parents involved is to “meet the parents where they live.” That doesn’t mean literally arriving at the family’s doorstep, but rather taking the time to make sure the parent is informed. She recommends proactively calling the parents and having evening and Saturday availability for meetings, if feasible. Online resources and translation services can also help parents be more involved in their child’s application process.  

4. Help Students Understand What College Is Like

For first-generation college-goers, it’s especially crucial to talk to them about what to expect when they get to school. Going to college can be an intimidating experience, but if they’re armed with enough knowledge of what awaits, they’ll be better equipped for the transition. Pope also suggests encouraging families to visit nearby campuses. Tours, class audits and meetings with admissions officers can help answer questions and allow students to feel at home on a college campus.

5. Help Students and Parents Figure Out Financial Aid

While the financial aid process isn’t simple for any student or family, first-generation college students may find it especially overwhelming. “It is important that students become well-informed as to the sources of financial assistance and are guided through the process,” says Pope. Cochran stresses the importance of parental involvement when it comes to the financial aid process, such as filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Think about proactively setting up meetings with both the parents and students where you explain the paperwork and clearly outline the steps. You may also consider having Q&A sessions to help address any questions. If you are working with families who need translated materials, refer them to resources in their language. For example, the FAFSA is available online in Spanish.

FAFSA® is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.