Helping a student become the first person in their family to attend college can be incredibly exciting and rewarding. And it’s probably something that’s already a regular part of your job.

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, one in three undergraduates identify as first generation. These students also have fewer financial resources than legacy students and attend four-year colleges at a lower rate. Helping these students get the facts and information to succeed is part of your job as a counselor, and a little planning and preparation can go a long way in helping them feel application ready.

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

1. Start Early

Students whose parents have gone to college likely have college in the back of their mind. They have heard stories about their own parent’s experiences, are familiar with the names of different schools, and may have informally started college conversations with their family at some point. First-generation college students may not be privy to that secondhand knowledge and may have misconceptions about the college experience. They may think that it’s only for the wealthy or that scholarships are impossible to obtain. Having conversations about college beginning freshman year can help students understand their college application journey well before it begins. Some community programs are designed specifically for first-generation college students, which can be helpful to introduce to your students early on.

2. Provide Group Counseling

In addition to individual counseling for these first-generation college students, group sessions can 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.

3. 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. Staying connected with first-generation alumni can set up a peer connection network for the future.

4. Involve the Parents

Anne Cochran, executive director at Valley International Preparatory High School, a public charter school in Northridge, CA, says it’s critical to engage the help of parents or guardians. She suggests the best way to get parents of first-generation college applicants involved is to “meet the parents where they live.” This means being proactive in providing services or support that the family may need. This could include evening or Saturday availability for meetings, offering translation services or meetings in the family’s language of origin, or providing online resources that can help the family understand their role in the application process.

5. 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 equipped 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.

6. Provide Financial Aid Resources

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 FASFA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). 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 trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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