11 Things First-Generation College Students Should Know

Four students stand on Sunset Cliffs together. They are smiling and looking at the sunset in the horizon.

Whether you’ve prepared for college your whole life or are just starting to plan for your college journey, the experience of being a first generation college student comes with a whirlwind of emotions, anxieties, setbacks and triumphs. While it's a huge badge of honor to become the first in your family to be a college student, the actual experience of navigating college as a first generation student isn't always easy. 

However, statistics show that you’re not alone in this process. First generation college students make up more than half of the U.S. undergraduate population. Forbes even reports that California is one of the leading states with first generation college students. 

Although your life is filled with work, family, and all kinds of other commitments, college will make it important to find a balance that works for you. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to find success in college, there are some things you can do to help set yourself up to get the most out of college.

That’s what college is all about — trying something new, pursuing your education and maybe learning more about yourself along the way. Here are 11 things first-generation college students can try to make college life easier.

1. Find community

You’re not meant to go this journey alone. In fact, you have 50% of the rest of the undergraduate population in the U.S. going through a similar experience.

The first step is to take comfort in knowing you’re not alone in the first generation journey. The next step is to connect with others on your campus. Whether it’s joining a club or studying with a classmate, having people to surround yourself with is an essential part of the college experience. When you hit a rut or unexpected circumstances come your way, it will be essential that you have people to turn to.

2. Utilize career services

Many schools have dedicated career development centers, which are a fantastic way for students to get help in finding their vocation and setting up career goals. They have a variety of resources to guide students through the unknowns and tough questions. 

PLNU’s Career Services hosts a variety of workshops and offers one-on-one support if needed. Whether you’re there for resume help or just want to bounce ideas off of them, career services is a resource that makes a huge difference.

Some of the opportunities for support include:

  • Interview practice
  • Strengths tests
  • Resume and cover letter review
  • Mentorship

3. Get connected with a mentor

As a first generation college student, it might be difficult to talk about school with family who haven’t experienced college. Finding a mentor who knows what you’re going through and can come alongside you will make all the difference. 

Whether it’s a professor or professional working in your field, it’s important to find a safe person who you can share your experiences with and ask questions. You can get connected with people through LinkedIn, email or reach out to career services to get help with networking. 

Asking for an informational interview is a great way to start growing your network. In the interview you can ask them questions about their career, their experiences in college and how they maintain work-life balance.

4. Get a library card and check out your library’s resources

You’d be surprised by the amount of activities and resources available through both your school and public libraries. The school library is a great place to study and check out books as needed. 

Pro tip: Oftentimes, the school library has textbooks available to be checked out for an hour or two, so if you only need a textbook for a few assignments, check the library before you buy. 

There are also library technicians available to help with finding a book, learning how to properly cite sources for a research paper or even utilizing online journals or articles. 

Public libraries are also great study environments because they offer computers and free wifi. And, if you’re looking for extra help with technology or wanting to volunteer your time, public libraries are a good place to start. 

Some of the amenities offered by California public libraries include:

  • Study space
  • Accessible wifi and printing options
  • Book checkout
  • Group activities such as yoga, career advice sessions, etc.
  • California State Library Parks Pass (read more on their website)
  • Discover & Go Program (read more on their website)

5. Figure out time management. Set a study/work/recharge schedule 

When planning out your schedule as a student, it’s important to establish a routine that allows you enough time to study, work, eat, recharge and rest. 


With school work, some people do 20 minutes working and five minutes of rest, others can work for hours on end. Your study habits are dependent on your attention span and workload. Whatever you do, make sure it works best for you. 

Some people study best in groups. Group learning is a great way to collaborate, share ideas, and compare notes on the material you’re studying. However, it can also be distracting at other times. Remember to work at your own pace and establish ways to stay focused.

Try these study tips:

  • Set a timer and take breaks
  • Eat healthy snacks while working
  • Play instrumental music while working
  • Work with someone who helps you stay focused  
  • Change up study environments to see which works best for you 


You may be working part time or even full time at school, and that can add a lot to your plate. Finances are essential to maintain at college because housing and tuition costs can add up. 

There really is no singular piece of advice on how to manage your work time while also being a college student because it looks different for everyone. Make sure to balance your work and income with getting proper time to study and rest. If you’re falling asleep while trying to do homework or not eating enough meals a day, you may need a shift in your work schedule. 


Recharging looks different for everyone. But the purpose of recharging is rest. Sometimes we think we’re resting when we’re doing a recharging activity, but we’re really just checking out for a couple of hours and numbing the tiredness we’re feeling. 

Television is a common activity people do to “recharge” but it’s not always the best way to rest. You should get up from a recharging activity feeling more refreshed, not more fatigued or anxious. If you’re feeling either of those things after a recharge, you probably should be trying something new. 

Here are some helpful ways to recharge and help your body expel stress: 

  • Take a nap
  • Prepare a healthy snack
  • Stretch, do yoga, or exercise
  • Read a book that helps you relax
  • Journal about your day or current mental or emotional state
  • Watch a brain-cleansing TV show (something that will make you feel happy, peaceful, rested, etc.) 
  • Listen to calming music
  • Go for a walk

Use Your Calendar

None of the above tips will help you if you’re not allocating enough time for them. The best way to ensure you’re meeting all of your needs is to properly schedule them. 

You can use a planner or Google Calendar. Make it an engaging activity to keep track of everything. Get colorful pens for your planner or change up the colors on your Google Calendar. 

6. Get some sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, most college-aged students need seven to nine hours of sleep in order to avoid daytime drowsiness, altered mood states, poor health and low energy. While most college students know it’s difficult to even get seven hours of sleep, that should be the goal. 

Late-night study sessions or picking up a night shift at work are bound to happen, but the key is not to do those everyday or multiple days on end. You have to set boundaries for proper rest, otherwise your personal wellbeing and academic performance will suffer. 

Living in dorms or apartments can make rest more challenging, so here are some tips on creating a comfortable resting environment:

  • Wash your sheets at least every two weeks (this will make your bed much more comfortable)
  • Invest in noise canceling headphones or earplugs 
  • Buy a fan and keep it on at night to create white noise and keep the room cool
  • Be communicative with your roommates or family members about your schedule and sleeping hours
  • Get advice from your doctor on whether you should take melatonin or other forms of sleep medications

7. Apply for scholarships

Scholarships are free financial aid that you don't have to pay back. They're often awarded for merit-based reasons, like academic performance, sports or fire arts performance, or other areas of interest. You can apply for many scholarships as an incoming first-year student, but you can get other scholarships (like department-specific awards) as you progress. 

Professional career groups (Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Chapter of American Association of Colleges of Nursing, American Psychological Association, etc.) often have student scholarships as well. So if you’re studying a major with professional groups in your local community, reach out to them for scholarship opportunities. 

You can also try websites like Niche and College Board, but you’re more likely to get scholarships if you apply for the local ones where the pool is smaller.

Connecting with a career advisor or counselor is a great way to get your application rolling. Career Services can help you write a cover letter and get your application materials organized.

Don’t wait until the last minute to apply for them. Take your time in filling out the applications and put your best foot forward. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it, keep sending out applications. Sooner or later, one will stick.

Things you’ll often have to submit in your application:

  • Resume
  • Cover letter
  • Personal essay (share your connection to the organization)
  • Transcript
  • Letter of recommendation

8. Use your professors as a resource for support and learning

Professors are at college to help you learn and succeed. Take the time to get to know them. They have plenty of knowledge, wisdom and advice to share if you’re willing to ask. 

Utilize office hours to get help with work and also share with them your goals for your career. They most likely will have input and advice to share with you that you might not otherwise know. 

Other ways to get connected with your professors are to do a research or honors project, set up an informational interview, or even ask them about their own academic journeys. Doing these things also help you to become more career-focused and go beyond classroom learning.

9. Get involved in extracurricular activities

Getting involved in extracurricular activities is a big part of the college experience. It helps you make friends and helps prepare you for social settings outside of college. 

Being involved in extracurriculars allows you to connect with others and also step into spaces of leadership. You learn to plan events, delegate and compromise — all important workplace skills. Plus, you might make lifelong friends that stick with you after college. 

Extracurricular activities include:

  • School clubs 
  • Community clubs (Asian Student Union, Association of Latin American Students, Black Student Union, etc.) 
  • Intramural sports
  • Volunteer work
  • Ministries
  • Local theater/choir

10. Roll with the punches

There can be lots of changes that happen during college. Academic, extracurricular and work schedules may vary, and the friends you make can come and go. Keep an open mind and remember to do your best and be yourself. You may find that opening yourself up to new things can help you learn new skills and discover new things you're passionate about.

11. Remember: You don’t have to do it all

It’s easy to want to participate in everything during college.

But you know your physical, mental and spiritual health best. You have to take initiative and responsibility for your time and self-advocate for what is best for you. Take time to decide what you want to prioritize, and what you’d be willing to give up. Managing time and learning not to overcommit yourself are important life skills that you can develop during college.

Be proud of yourself. You did it!

These tips are simple ways to help you flourish and experience all the best college can offer. It’s easy to get caught up in the to-do lists, but don’t forget to take a moment and recognize the immense accomplishment it is to be attending college. You deserve to fill the spaces you’ll step into and share your experiences. 

PLNU is committed to recognizing the experiences of first generation students and making resources accessible through the LomaFirst program. LomaFirst is a collaboration among the Office of Admissions, Career Services, and Student Financial Services. According to a Viewpoint article about first generation college student experiences, “the specific programs and priorities LomaFirst is seeking to achieve include:

  • Peer-mentoring programs and social activity groups for younger first-gen students to connect with, learn from, and follow the footsteps of others like them. 
  • Financial literacy, budgeting, and problem-solving skills built into curricular and co-curricular activities.
  • Academic advising to help first-gen students build long-term plans toward successful graduation.
  • Data infrastructure to monitor and detect early warning signs to intervene proactively before students are in danger of leaving PLNU. 
  • Emergency aid and rescue funds for students when they’ve exhausted all financial options.”

If you’re interested in exploring PLNU’s resources, connect with a counselor today.

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