6 Tips for Applying to Grad School as a First-Generation Student How to Navigate the Process and Thrive Once You Get There
6 Tips for Applying to Grad School as a First-Generation Student How to Navigate the Process and Thrive Once You Get There

Deciding to return to school and get a graduate degree is a big life choice. If you’re the first generation of your immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree, this prospect can be even more intimidating.

“Being a first-generation student contemplating graduate school can feel isolating,” says Claudia Villa Moore, a first-gen college grad who earned her master’s degree from the University of Washington. “You don’t always have the kinds of mentors and connections to help you accomplish your academic and professional goals.”

Moreover, studies show first-gen students often face significant financial and personal hurdles to accessing higher education. According to research compiled by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, when compared with continuing-generation students, first-gen students:

  • Had a lower median household income and more unmet financial need
  • Incurred more student debt
  • Were older and more likely to have dependents

To help you overcome these kinds of first-gen challenges as you contemplate applying to and attending grad school, here are six tips that will give you the best chance for success.

1. Defeat Impostor Syndrome

Even though you've earned your undergraduate degree, that doesn’t mean you’ve seen the last of that dreaded foe — impostor syndrome. You may have heard of this concept, which is defined as "persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud, despite evidence of one's ongoing success.”

I asked myself, ‘Who does impostor syndrome serve?’ And the reality is, it doesn’t serve anyone.

Crystal Galván, adviser, University of Washington Bothell
Impostor syndrome is a common experience for many people, including first-gen students and those from underrepresented backgrounds. The challenge is confirmed by Crystal Galván, an adviser for the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell and a former first-generation grad student.

“As a woman of color and first-generation student, that's definitely something that I experienced,” says Galván, who earned her master’s degree in Latin American and Latinx Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I thought I wasn't good enough to attend college, much less graduate school.”

The best way to overcome these doubts and fears? Directly confront them, Galván says.

“One exercise I found helpful was to unpack why I felt like I didn't belong,” she notes. “I asked myself, ‘Who does impostor syndrome serve?’ And the reality is, it doesn’t serve anyone.”

Think back on how you’ve overcome previous academic and personal challenges and know you’ll be able to rely on that same resilience to handle the stresses of grad school. And, of course, you can always pull out that bachelor’s diploma when you need an extra shot of confidence.

2. Expand Your Network

Your parents might not have completed their college degrees and gone on to graduate school, but chances are you know someone who did.

Maybe it’s a coworker or a friend — or a friend of a friend. Finding someone could be as simple as going on social media and posting about your interest in graduate school. Be sure to mention the field you’re considering and the schools or programs you’re targeting.

Once you’ve found someone who’s been there and done that, don’t hesitate to ask them for an informational interview (or out to coffee, if it’s a more personal connection and you live in the same area). Most professionals enjoy sharing about their career and are happy to help.

“I tell students to go on LinkedIn and reach out to people who are doing the work you’re interested in and seeing if they'd be willing to talk to you,” said Jerry Vasquez, a graduate adviser in the Department of Electrical Engineering at UW Bothell. “I think many people are open to talking about their experience in grad school and beyond.”

Learning about the experiences of others will not only boost your confidence during your grad school application process, it will also give you a jump-start on growing your professional network in the field. These connections can be quite valuable once you finish your graduate degree and start looking for a job.

3. Find a Grad School Accountability Partner

If you tend to procrastinate — an issue often compounded by a lack of confidence — one way to combat it is to find an accountability partner.

In this case, your partner would be someone also applying to graduate school (or perhaps undertaking another complex application, such as for grant funding). You can then share your application schedule, major tasks (writing your personal statement, pursuing letters of recommendation, etc.) and other milestones with each other and offer support.

“That way you can encourage each other; you can check in and ask, ‘Hey, how’s your personal statement coming?’” Galván notes.

She adds that if you can’t find someone who is also working on an application, it’s a good idea to ask a friend or family member to support you. “For someone stressed out about deadlines, it’s helpful to have someone who cares for you check in regularly, just to see how you're doing.”

4. Research Funding Opportunities

Let’s face it: graduate school is expensive. Because you’ll need all the financial help you can get, make sure you leave no stone unturned when looking for funding.  

As a first-gen student, you may be eligible for certain scholarships and grants that are specifically designed for you. You can search scholarship sites and databases using the keyword “first-generation” to find these types of funding opportunities.

Another good funding tip is to look for scholarships based on the diverse aspects of your personal background. Think about your ethnicity, religious affiliation, immigration status or other attributes that might make you eligible for certain funding options.

For example, the Soros Fellowships for New Americans provide up to $90,000 in financial support for graduate school (paid out over two years) specifically for immigrants or children of immigrants. The UW Graduate School has a web page devoted to these kinds of diversity funding opportunities.

Also, be sure to research if there are any tuition assistance programs at your place of work. And many schools have special programs to help grad students locate funding once they are admitted, like the Graduate Funding Information Service at the UW.  

5. Find Your People on Campus

One positive trend for first-generation students is that many more programs and resources offer support today than existed a decade or two ago. There’s even a National First-Generation College Celebration that occurs annually in November, sponsored by the Center for First-Generation Student Success (CFGSS).

If you don't have academic support from your family, then maybe you have it from these groups, where you can connect with people who’ve taken a similar path.

Claudia Villa Moore, first-generation grad, UW Master of Science in Biomedical Regulatory Affairs 
No matter what graduate program you attend, be sure to inquire about these types of resources before enrolling. Many universities have stepped up their outreach efforts to first-gen students on their campuses. “There’s definitely a growing prioritization of this population,” says Galván.

Building a supportive network can make a huge difference when things get tough. It’s important to be able to talk to other first-gen students who are going through similar experiences or who have been there in the past.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to support,” says Villa Moore, the first-gen student who earned her Master of Science in Biomedical Regulatory Affairs from UW and now works in the biotech industry. “If you don't have academic support from your family, then maybe you have it from these groups, where you can connect with people who’ve taken a similar path. They can be there to help guide you and answer questions.”

As an example, the three campuses that make up the University of Washington offer a variety of different resources and community connections for first-generation students.

6. Become an Inspiration

If earning a graduate degree seems too daunting or difficult, remember that it can pay off handsomely in the long run — not just for you, in terms of your life and career, but for those you might inspire.

“I’m not just doing grad school for me; I’m doing it for my family and community. That’s my driving force,” says Galván, who grew up as the daughter of farmworkers in eastern Washington. She plans to attend Seattle University next year to begin studying for her doctorate in education.

“There’s not that many first-generation women of color with doctoral degrees,” she adds. “I want to be able to help my community and inspire others, who can then help people in their community.”   

Learn More

Want to discover more helpful content about the grad school process? Check out our go-to guide for applying to graduate school for links to additional articles.

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, specializations, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

Author David Hirning

David Hirning

David Hirning is an accomplished writer and editor with extensive experience in both tech and higher education. He began his career in journalism, then spent over a decade as an editor at Microsoft, where he worked on Encarta Encyclopedia and related reference products.

David worked for six years as a full-time writer and content manager at UW Professional & Continuing Education. He also operated his own editorial consulting business, with stints at leading companies like Amazon and Expedia, and taught English for two years in Costa Rica.

David has served as an instructor for the UW Certificate in Editing program and as a teaching assistant for the UW Certificate in Storytelling & Content Strategy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University and a Certificate in Literary Fiction from the UW.

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