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Articles > Student Life July, 13, 2020

5 survival tips for a first-generation student

Shannon Yu
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It might be exciting to be the first in your family to attend university, but does it put you at an unfair disadvantage? Here’s my top tips for starting university if you’re a first-gen student…

‘First-gens are more likely to drop out of university, face psychological challenges and are less likely to enter a professional job.’ – The Department of Education.

This statement’s not that surprising when you consider all the first-hand knowledge that these students miss out on; from hearing about personal experiences to sharing tips on how to prepare for student life. It can feel like trying to navigate through the dark while others all have torches.

In the following five tips, I’ve tried to fill that knowledge gap by shedding light on the challenges you may face and how you can overcome them as a first-gen student.

1. Be a door knocker

‘There’s no shame in asking’ is a phrase which my parents have repetitively drilled into me throughout my life, yet this continues to be a struggle to fulfil. I thought, why bother asking when it’s unlikely anything will come of it? But, after watching another inspiring video by YouTuber Ali Abdaal, I found the idea of being a ‘door knocker’ was a perfect representation of all that was wrong
with my previous thought.

Being a door knocker means opening yourself up to the possibilities of success. Although you can’t see what lies on the other side of that door, it’s important to take that step because for all you know, the outcome may be beyond anything you could ever imagine.

Don’t wait until you can see what’s on the other side (aka the window opener mindset), as it’ll only narrow the opportunities available to you.

Take a step of faith and never be afraid to reach out and ask.

2. Make use of mentorship schemes

Free outreach programmes are available for targeted prospective students, including first-gens, and these provide personalised support and work experience offers. Check out the Sutton Trust’s Summer School Programme and Nuffield Research Placements.

Some universities even offer their own outreach summer schools, which provide great insights on the transition into university.

3. Be mindful of your mindset

It’s an amazing feeling when you bag these opportunities, but as we all know, there are often setbacks which can be detrimental to our mental and educational health.

Imposter syndrome is a real issue; the feeling that one doesn’t belong or have the skills to deserve success. Within my two years of A level study, I participated in numerous workshops, programmes and placements. Whilst you would expect the effects of imposter syndrome to lesson, as my experience increased, it in fact only got worse as I progressed onto bigger and better things.

Feeling like an imposter isn’t anything we can grow out of. However, what we can do is manage it. This will come from recognising that your feelings are based purely on your own assumptions, and not rooted in fact. Reflect on your achievements, and you will see that you have every right to be where you are (and no, your successes were not flukes!).

It may even be others who don’t believe you deserve targeted outreach opportunities, but remember, such programmes are packaged for a reason. Embrace your culture as a first-gen and grab every opportunity presented your way.

4. Embrace your first-gen culture

First-gen culture encompasses the overcoming of barriers of social mobility. Climbing up this social ladder can often result in a sense of distance between the culture of family at home, and the culture of an academic society.

Noticing a separation in identity when interacting within these two dynamically different environments can be extremely difficult to deal with. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognise and value both our personalities, for neither are better than the other. If anything, they improve us to becoming more well-rounded individuals.

5. Join communities who share your experiences

‘First-Gens’ is a forever growing community, supporting all who wish to ‘go to university, navigate graduate recruitment and flourish within a career’. As a first-gens ambassador myself, I would highly recommend checking out our website and social media pages (most followed on Instagram) for tailored guidance and services.


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If you enjoyed reading this, then you may also like:

The Brutal Reality of Starting University

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  1. Asha

    I think… it’s a well written article giving good advice, who would’ve thought it’s your first one, looking forward to what else you write!

  2. Asha

    A well written article giving good advice, who would’ve thought it’s your first one. Looking forward to what else’s you’re gonna write!