College Application Secrets Insider Tips Ivy Admissions

First-Generation Student? Highlight, Don’t Hide

The National Center for Education Statistics defines first-generation students as “undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.” If only one of your parents attended college, you may not be considered a first-generation college applicant. However, if you have a sibling who attended college, and your parents did not, in most cases you will still be considered a first-generation student. It’s always best to check a particular school’s definition of first generation, and their specific policy. MIT, for instance, defines first-generation students as “…those who will be the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college,” implying that if a parent attended a two-year college, the student could still be considered first generation.


If you’re among those who are applying to college as a first-generation student and you’re hesitant to talk about your parents’ educational status, you’re not alone. Thirty percent of entering freshmen in the United States are first-generation college students. Cornell’s Class of 2020 boasts nearly 700 first-generation college students and first-gen students in the Class of 2020 at Williams College come in at 255 or twenty-one percent!

We field college admissions questions from thousands of families, and notice that first-generation students are often reluctant to identify themselves as such. Oftentimes, we’ve found they may feel embarrassment or think it is an irrelevant fact. IT ISN’T!

Be Proud


Instead of hiding this critical information, first-generation students should highlight it. Why? Many colleges track this nonacademic statistic. 14.7 percent of Dartmouth’s Class of 2020 are first-generation students and 12 percent of the University of Pennsylvania’s class of 2019 are first-generation college students. Admissions officers seek a diverse student body and want to hear about the forces that have shaped a student’s life, including if you are the first in your family to attend college.


Here are a few additional tips for first-generation college applicants:

  • Define ‘First-Generation’

Be sure you identify exactly how ‘first-generation student’ is defined at your target schools, as it varies.

  • Complete the Additional Information Section on the Common App

The additional information section on the Common Application is the place to include information that you haven’t included anywhere else on the Common App and an ideal spot to write an essay that highlights how your life has been shaped by having parents who did not attend college. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate what attending college means to you, given your background. By opting out of this section, you lose a chance to set yourself apart from your peers.

  • Look for Resources at Your Target Schools

Statistics show that first-generation students often need more support. According to the EAB, 90 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.

Unfortunately, many first-generation college applicants don’t have parental support to help guide them through the application process and oftentimes are working at least part time to finance their education. Seek help and guidance by contacting the admissions office at your prospective colleges to ask if they have programs, guides, mentor groups or other resources for first-generation students. Do not let pride stand in the way of success.

Many top colleges and universities have resources to help first-generation students thrive. Fifteen percent of Stanford’s Class of 2019 and ten percent of Duke’s Class of 2019 incoming freshmen are the first in their families to attend college and participate in I’m First!, ‘an online community providing first-generation college students – and those who advise them – with inspiration, information, and support on the road to and through college.’ Dartmouth College started their First Year Student Enrichment Program in 2009. The University of Iowa provides a program called First Generation Iowa to students, M.I.T. has the First Generation Project and Clemson University offers a FIRST-Generation Success Program. Programs of this nature are widespread and available; students simply can’t be too afraid to reach out and use them.

If a college representative is visiting your high school for an information session, use the opportunity to meet the representative and identify yourself as a first-generation student. This will help you build personal connections and may lead to personalized support during your college admissions process.


Be proud of where you come from and recognize how you can position yourself to succeed once in college. If you are a first-generation student, embrace it, then leverage your story and all the resources available to maximize your success.

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