First Generation students often feel the jitters at the start of college.

On Sunday, August 21st, 2016 The New York Times Review section wrote a piece called Overcoming Freshman Fear. The author describes the fear of feeling like a fraud especially when that student is a first generation student.

7 Best Tips for First Generation College StudentsThis is the student who does not have anyone in their family who has gone to college.  When I wrote my book I Can Finish College  this was the student I was writing to. All students go through  the fear of being an admissions mistake as the Times notes.

However first generation students have that fear most intensely.  And the fear leads to the biggest mistake a student can make. The mistake of being silent. As first gen students struggle they tend to be silent in their misery.  Don’t do that.

Here is how to avoid the First Gen jitters.

  • First and foremost find an adviser, a mentor and an upperclassman. The adviser should be someone whose job it is to guide students.

You may be assigned one but if the chemistry does not fit find another. It could be a faculty member who knows enough to tell you  how things work and who can open doors as needed. It can be a dean or department head.

That person could turn out to be a mentor but mentors can also be found in other roles. Recently it was noted that sometimes even members of the custodial staff have been mentors to homesick students. Coaches can be in this role too. And then find an upperclassman who is successful.

They may be in clubs or organizations that you should join anyway. It could be an ethnically centered or academically centered group but should have some other students who were you a few years before.  Ask the upperclassman about the “hacks” that work  for your campus—the best places to study, best professors, best free food, best places to get materials printed out for free…. Upperclassmen are a goldmine. Many have been in your shoes and they have gotten over their first gen jitters.7 Best Tips for First Generation College Students

  • Speak up in class and outside it. Get to know your professors by asking questions. Inquiry is golden in college so don’t think it makes you look stupid, quite to the contrary it makes you look smart and engaged.  You want to be someone the faculty thinks of as interested and wanting to learn. You might get extra points for taking advantage of office hours and raising your hand in class.
  • Don’t waste your money. If you are not using the writing or other tutoring services (which the smartest students do) then you are leaving money on the table. You have paid for these things.  You pay for librarians, advisers, professors, tutors, health services, the gym. All are part of your tuition and if you don’t use them you are wasting your money. They are there for you and can help eliminate those first gen jitters.
  • Use the tools there for you on the college website and be sure to review the campus catalog. They can also help keep you from making mistakes.

This is where the rules are. You can find out how (and when) to take an incomplete or drop a course or petition to get into a course or contest a grade and lots more. These are goldmines of information that make you more of an insider and  can reduce the first gen jitters.

  • Go to events—especially where there may be alumni. Like upper classmen they have inside track information. Alumni too have been where you are jitters and all. Also these events usually have free food and are great places to meet people who could eventually be useful professionally even in finding those all important internships.
  • Do not hide out. Students who disappear into their dorm rooms and don’t join clubs or take advantage of resources are not likely to make it. Silence is not golden here. This is where you get to practice the skills you will use for the rest of your professional life. You can’t hide out then.

Find others who are like you and share and commiserate together. Find your way together. You will not be the only person in your situation. These days a significant percentage of your class will be first gen. Students like you have even created organizations on campus to push their schools to be more responsive to their needs. No need as a first gen student for you to struggle in silence.

  • The one time for you to hide out might be when you are reading. Not only for class but also to be sure you are up on what others have read—classics, The New York Times, Gawker… all the places where the buzz and cultural references dropped in casual conversations by those not first gen are found. You can read on your phone while standing in the cafeteria line, or other dead time zones. But become culturally savvy (cool). Then you will feel more secure when engaging with others who are not first gen. Kick those first gen jitters to the curb!7 Best Tips for First Generation College Students

One of my favorite stories of first generation success is from Sonia Sotomayor. Her story is in another blog I did for the Huffington Post.

In the end the blog says: “I have heard her messages from others who have also achieved to a far greater degree than they ever imagined. Some I know from personal knowledge and some from media interviews. But the themes are the same. Take the risk, find the allies, seek support. It works over and over. Try. Just do what Justice Sotomayor did.”

You are not a mistake but rather a wise choice made by your college to enhance their reputation by your success. You can do this. You may be first generation in your family now but you are also starting a tradition. All good. First gen jitters gone!

Marcia Cantarella

Marcia Cantarella, Ph.D.

Learn more about Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D, her book, I CAN Finish College  and more at