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If you’re planning to be the first member of your family to go to college, the whole process may seem bafflingly complex. In case it’s any consolation, it can seem that way for just about anybody, first generation or not.

But there’s no question that first-generation applicants face some special challenges and may not have the same supports as their second-, third-, or umpteenth-generation peers.

In particular, their families often don’t begin the college planning process as early as others do, so they may find themselves playing catch up, notes Frederick J. Riley, national director of urban and youth development at YMCA of the USA and a first-generation college grad himself (of Morris Brown College in Atlanta). In the Achievers Program offered at more than 300 Y locations across the U. S., he adds, the college conversation begins as early as sixth grade.

From Riley and other experts, some tips:

When you apply

  • Visit some campuses. Nothing will give you a better feel for college than seeing a couple of them and, ideally, sitting in on some classes. If the cost of travel is a concern, bear in mind that some colleges will subsidize your expenses and put you up in a dorm room for the night. It's worth a call or email to the admissions office to find out.
  • Aim high. “We see kids who can meet the academic rigor of the Ivy League applying to community college,” Riley says. That may be the right course for some students, but you shouldn’t assume that a prestigious or selective four-year college is out of reach if your family doesn’t have the income to pay its full “sticker” price. If you have the grades, test scores, or other attributes they’re looking for, you may be eligible for enough grants, scholarships, and work study to make it happen. If your family income is $48,000 a year or less, you can use Money’s new Affordable College Finder tool to create a list of colleges that should be a good match for you.
  • Get help if you need it. In addition to programs at local YMCAs and other community organizations, websites such as Get Schooled and uAspire have a wealth of information.

Related: The 50 Most Affordable Private Colleges

Before you go

  • Have a financial plan. “Nothing is worse than getting to campus and discovering you don’t have enough money to support yourself,” Riley says. So, in addition to any financial aid you’re receiving, figure out how you’ll pay for necessities that aid doesn’t cover. “Your food may be covered but not other things you’ll need, like toiletries,” Riley says.

After you get there

  • Expect to be homesick at first. For many students, particularly first-generation ones, college can be a “total culture shock,” Riley notes. But, he adds, “it will get better.”
  • Make campus connections early. Take advantage of your school’s support services. Chances are, college courses will be more rigorous than you’ve experienced before, Riley says. So if you need tutoring help, don’t hesitate to ask for it. A college that’s doing its job will want you to succeed and go on to graduate.
  • Stay healthy. Eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. An occasional all-nighter may be a college tradition, but in general, sleep isn’t just essential for your overall health but for your ability to process information. And you will be processing a lot of it.


Related: How to Graduate From College Debt-Free (and Regret-Free)

How families can help

  • Be supportive. Your emotional and (to the extent possible) financial support can help your student stay in college and thrive there. “A parent’s or guardian’s job doesn’t end when the child goes off to college,” Riley says.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. That’s a college degree. Riley suggests that families focus on getting their students to junior year, saying research shows 86% of students who make it that far will go on to graduate.