7 Tips For First-Generation College Students Navigating the Job Search

Advice from a first-generation graduate who made it through the process.

I was about 8 years old when I knew I wanted to pursue writing as a career. The chunky 2003 desktop computer sitting in my living room was the first thing I ran to after finishing my homework. And the more comfortable I got with the keyboard, the more I realized I wanted to go to school as long as I possibly could – college was a must. But every time I showed the slightest bit of excitement about getting a degree, my parents gave me a nervous smile.


My mom applied to college years ago, but didn’t make it through her first semester because she felt completely lost. And my dad got his GED a few years before I was born after dropping out in the 11th grade. Neither of them knew anything about applying to college, choosing a major, or financing the whole four years. Sure, they loved the idea of me accomplishing everything they couldn’t, but they were afraid that their lack of experience would be of no help once I entered into the world as a first-generation student and professional.


About 33 percent of higher education students today are first-generation college students, which is defined as someone whose parents or legal guardians have not completed a bachelor’s degree. If both my parents had graduated from college, I probably would have felt a little more at ease while editing my resume or rehearsing an elevator pitch before job interviews. But instead, I got used to swimming in the deep end and made note of every failure and every feat that would one day help other first-generation professionals find their place in the working world. Looking back, these are the top pieces of advice I collected through my own job search and professional journey.


Network as soon as possible.

My family didn’t have any high-profile connections that could get me an impossible interview or lunch with a CEO. And because of that, I didn’t understand the value of networking until graduation started to creep up on me. But that wasn’t the way to go.


My advice to any first-generation student is that no matter how many years of school you have left, start networking. Go to career fairs, reach out to alumni, get your classmates’ phone numbers and meet up with them for study dates. Even if you’re a freshman, that assistant you connect with at your dream job may be a manager by the time you’re ready to apply.


Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

As a first-generation student, there will be moments when you feel intimidated. While your classmates are calling their parents in between classes to get advice on a job lead, your only option is your academic advisor.


And this is a great option.


Never take your advisors for granted. They’ve sat with hundreds and possibly thousands of students who’ve graduated and landed great jobs, and they also know where other students went wrong while applying. So whenever you have time, make use of the career services or any academic advisor who can help edit your resume, find a good theme for your cover letter, or connect with alumni who had the same major as you.


Skip that unpaid internship if you have to.

Throughout my five and a half years of school, I had to pass up a few unpaid internships I desperately wanted. I knew they’d boost my resume and I’d walk away with an unforgettable experience. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had no money to carry me through that dry period. I didn’t have family to crash with and had no check coming in to pay for rent. And even if I managed to find a place to stay, there was no way I’d be able to afford food, transportation, or all of my other bills. I had no choice but to take a job as a server instead.


I’ll admit I was a bit heartbroken, but I realized this wasn’t as big of a setback as I thought it would be because I spent all of my free time creating work that could revamp my portfolio. I started freelancing and even took on small writing jobs for local businesses to get more experience working with clients.


My advice to anyone who’s forced to turn down an unpaid internship is to look for other ways to get experience, even if it’s for a few hours a week. Try volunteering, freelancing, or even shadowing a professional you admire. And if you show you’re committed to learning, these small steps could turn into paid opportunities later on.


Use every free service you possibly can.

My first year of school, I searched YouTube for a video on how to fill out your FAFSA application. Within seconds, I found videos on “The 3 Deadly FAFSA Mistakes” and “How to Get the Most Money Out of FAFSA.” I realized the internet knew way more than my parents did.


I found myself using Google for everything. The most common interview questions. What to avoid putting on your resume. How to lower your heart rate when you’re really nervous. And no matter what question I types in the search bar, I found an answer. This was reassurance that I wasn’t alone.


I also took advantage of free trials on job search websites, especially LinkedIn Premium because I didn’t have an extra $500 to pay for the entire year. I only had 30 days to use all of the extremely helpful tools that helped me compare salaries to other people with similar jobs, and submit my application before other people saw the posting. So when you’re ready to apply, be sure to sign up right away and check the platform at least once a day. And of course, set up an alert that reminds you to cancel the trial before it charges your card.


Be open about your financial needs.

After a few job interviews, I realized most hiring managers aren’t robots that briefly scan candidates to find the perfect employee. They’re empathetic human beings. So when it comes to negotiating a salary, don’t be afraid to tell a hiring manager why you’re requesting a certain amount. Maybe you have to help out family. Or maybe that dollar amount is just what you’ll need to survive and maintain a healthy work-life balance.


If an employer isn’t able to meet those needs, bring up the possibility of having more paid time off or getting the company to help with moving expenses. And always be sure to ask about other internal opportunities that provide more room for growth.


Embrace being a first-generation graduate in every interview.

You might think, “Okay, this is my first adult job, I need to come off as extra professional.” That’s exactly what I told myself. And I got so caught up in rehearsing the “right” thing to say, that I was completely caught off guard when a hiring manager asked me something as simple as, “What kind of movies do you like to watch?”


It’s important to show off your personality and highlight the fact that your upbringing and familial ties plays a part in why you’re the perfect candidate. You might be a first-generation graduate with little guidance, but you also might speak a second language, or you taught yourself a particular hobby because you’re so accustomed to learning new things on your own. Whatever your interesting fact is, embrace it.


Submit every application with confidence.

Your first job out of college might feel like a culture shock. Everyone seems mature, smart, and elite. There’s a high chance that you’ll be a minority, but it should never deter you from submitting every application, email, or project with confidence. Don’t compare your resume to other candidates’ resumes, and don’t harp on the idea that someone else might have qualifications that you do not have at the moment. Embrace the uniqueness that you bring to the workplace and remind yourself that every job you take is an opportunity for growth and unforgettable learning opportunities.


Gabriela Julia is a media and communications professional. She holds a B.A. from the University of Buffalo and a M.A. from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.


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