Incoming First Generation College Student Questions & Concerns

Hello Everyone,

In my recent thread, I mentioned that I am a first generation college student planning to major in chemical engineering and attending college in the spring 2022 semester. If you don’t know who I am, I wrote the thread “How can growing up with strict parents affect my college life?” and a variety of people gave me some helpful advice but also opinions that doesn’t sit right with me at all. Anyways, since I am first generation I don’t know anything about the college transition process (both of my parents didn’t finish college so I have to be the person in my family to break that barrier) and I have some questions. Any YouTube video or article website links would be very helpful. I just need different inputs from other people so my first college transition would be smooth as possible.

Here are my questions:

  1. What should I expect as a college student in the spring 2022 academic term?
  2. How do you balance school & a part time job?
  3. How is syllabus week different in college than in high school?
  4. How do I study for material that’s not taught in class?
  5. How do I study as a STEM major?
  6. Or, is there anything else I need to know as a first generation college student.

I know I asked too many questions but your contribution to this thread will be cherised. Thank you :slightly_smiling_face:

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I haven’t read your other thread but my daughter is a chem e.

Couple of thoughts based on your questions-

Be sure that starting in the spring is feasible for course sequencing for your major and won’t set you up to be in a position where you are having to stay/pay an extra semester. My D is at Purdue and first year engineering design starts in the Fall only. Lots of courses have design as a pre-req. My advice would be to reach out to the college of engineering at the schools on your list and parse that out in advance.

I’d also recommend joining a club or activity as a way to meet people since most freshmen start in the Fall.

Be cautious about not working too many hours at first. I’d recommend no more than 10 hours/week tops, but preferably none for your first semester. It’s a big difference in work load from HS and you want to be sure that you are focusing on your academics. I watched my D working from home during part of Covid and 14 hour days M-F were the norm in terms of courses/labs/projects/studying. She had more time on the weekend but still lots of studying.

Not sure what you mean by syllabus week?

Studying - go to every single office hour, all review sessions, and make use of all the free tutoring. Most importantly - go even if you don’t think you need it. Professors and TAs will often give examples of what will be on tests and get you thinking outside the box. Most of engineering is taking what you learn in class and applying it in novel ways. Doing loads of practice questions and looking at past exams can help.

Join a study group right away. Don’t try to do it on your own. Collaboration is key!

Cal Newport’s book - How to be a Straight A Student is often recommended as a good resource.

Best of luck to you!


Congratulations! What college are you going to?!

This. Two of the biggest mistakes new college students- 1st gen or 10th gen- make are 1) not using all the tools in the tool box and 2) not realizing how fast the pace is in college.

Your college will have all kinds of resources, formal and informal: writing centers, math labs, TAs, profs, study groups, etc. A lot of students think that they are only for students who “need help” and that it looks bad if you go for help. Imagine going to a store to buy X. At the front door of the store they are handing out coupons for free X. Do you say ‘no thanks’ to the coupon b/c you don’t want people to think you don’t have the money to buy the X? of course not! These are all tools to help you do the job of getting through a very challenging college program. Use them, starting on the first day, because the pace of work in college is so fast that you can be in real trouble before you know it- especially in the first couple of semesters. It’s like a plane trip: the most likely time for real trouble is the lift off.

You mentioned syllabus week- make sure you read all your syllabi all the way through and note when the mid-terms / big assignments fall- you will see that they cluster. The only way to be ready for them is to be working ahead- figure out how you will break down the work. And, if there is reading for the class on March 9th, do the reading before the class, not after.

Also- and this is true for all students- sometimes your first friends end up being your all-the-way friends. Many, many times they don’t. Remember that “real” friendships take time -and usually some shared challenges!- to develop. Starting in the spring has some extra challenges (in the autumn everybody is new together, by spring they are holding on tight to their first friends, like being on a life raft). It will look as though everybody has their friend group sorted and you may feel as though nobody has room for you. You will be partly right and partly wrong! you need start by seeing it a “I chose to start at a time when there are fewer new people, so I need to work that bit harder to find my friends”. Asking people about studying together is a great way to start making friends. One thing that is different between HS and college is that most people have more, and more specialized, friend groups in college: study group in class y, a different one in class x, friends from your hall, friends from your favorite EC, etc.

Finally, don’t take anything personally. Seriously. Everybody else is trying to find their way, just like you- even the 10th gen kid is on their first time being at college. Everybody has their story, and it will be the tiniest of minorities of fellow students who have not had challenges along the way (even if you can’t imagine what that was, because it all looks so much easier than your path was from the outside).


Piling on to agree wholeheartedly with these suggestions. And I’ll repeat it myself because it is so important.

The pace of college takes a while to get accustomed to for many college freshmen. There is an added degree of difficulty to this for 1st gen students because they often do not have a family member to help them realize this is expected and temporary. A 1st gen student might mistakenly assume that the first month is so difficult because the student is not truly college material, and that can lead to a academic downward spiral that leads eventually to dropping out.

As recommended, it is crucial to join study groups and sign up for tutoring sessions … before the first class begins. Students often think that joining a study group or asking for tutoring is a sign of incompetence. It is not. It is a sign of a mature person ensuring they put themselves in the best position to succeed. Sometimes a student thinks they will wait to see which classes they are struggling in and seek tutoring/study groups at that time. I think the better method is to sign up for the group (and/or tutoring appointments) prior to the first class - not that the sessions will take place before the initial class, but the calendar usually opens up before the first class and allows you to sign up for sessions. Sign up for sessions beginning the first week of classes. Then, if after a few weeks you decide the class is not too difficult to handle on your own, cut back on the tutoring or drop the tutoring altogether.

You don’t have to do this for every class, but if you’re in stem you should do it for all related courses. And any student who has trouble in a specific subject should definitely do it for that subject.

Universities have ample resources to students pass classes and graduate. The problem is not all students who could benefit from those resources actually take advantage of them.

Make sure you take advantage of every resource, including your advisor. Meet with your advisor often (as often as they will allow) to make sure you fully understand the progression of classes, the resources available to you, and your options.


One important thing to know is there is a LOT you don’t know. It’s okay to not know it. It’s okay to feel awkward. It’s okay to sometimes feel confused.

The key is to keep moving forward. Keep showing up for every class. Keep studying and staying on top of your projects/reports. Keep utilizing your resources.

Another thing to know is to be wary of advice from people who haven’t been through the college process. Sometimes the worst advice can come from someone with the best intentions but who has insufficient knowledge to provide correct advice. I don’t ask my doctor for mechanical advice, and I don’t ask my mechanic for legal advice. I know of many instances of a 1st Gen student being given terrible advice from well meaning family and friends. If possible, try to get your most important advice about a college problem from someone who has been through college.


10 hours? I thought I shouldn’t work more than 20 hours because I also need money to take care of myself financially without relying on anyone else. What is syllabus week in college? What should I expect on the very first week?

thank you for your response

20 hours is too much per week to work with a full time course schedule, I am speaking from experience. Is the school you are starting in spring affordable for you and your family?

I haven’t heard the term syllabus week before. Each professor will give you a class syllabus either before the first class, or during the first class. Your first week of classes with be taking care of housekeeping things like getting books, understanding prof expectations, and you will get your first assignments…all likely similar to what you experienced in HS.


Yes, its affordable.

I wanted to go to a school in Texas but its too much money I’ve always wanted to live there but I have to stay in state for another 4 years until I graduate so I won’t accumulate a lot of student debt. So, I’m going to Purdue University.

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You might be able to up your hours after you are comfortable with your course load but please please don’t start out working 20 hours/week. Chem E is no joke. You’ll be taking math, chemistry, physics, maybe a design class depending on where you go, and English. There has been no semester where my D took fewer than 5 courses. And she came in with a lot of AP/DE credit.

I would highly recommend looking at the 4 year plan of study for the schools on your list, familiarize yourself with the course sequencing, and the frequency of course offerings. The bigger the program, typically the more flexibility.

My D says her classes jump right in from day one. There was no ramp up. It’s expected that you will have read the syllabus and come prepared on your first day. Most of D’s profs sent emails a week before the class highlighting grading rubrics and giving them their first assignments. If any school on your list is on the quarter system, it will be even more of an immediate jumping in.

If money is a concern, do you have co-op schools on your list? Purdue and Cincinnati would be schools to explore. I can speak to you via PM about Purdue’s co-op program if you are interested. My D is finishing up her last rotation. She’s earned a considerable amount. Definitely more than she would have made working part time during the academic year.


I’m going to private message you.


OP, now that we know your school, you are in good hands with momofboiler, so answer her PM. Good luck to you!


Thank you for your input.

I didn’t read your first post but as a first gen many years ago I would offer some pointers. The main problem is you don’t know what you don’t know.

  1. There are resources at colleges you should use. Take a class on how to study and manage your time. College isn’t high school.

  2. Go to class. Go to study sessions. Go to office hours. Use tutoring services if your school has them.

  3. Find a good advisor or mentor to help you navigate the process.

  4. Ask questions. Don’t always take what you’re given. If you’re at a large public school you’re just a number. Advocate for yourself.

  5. Use the career services resources. Learn to interview.

  6. If you went to a subpar high school realize that you’re already behind, especially for engineering. Don’t be afraid to start with review classes and build up. It’s not where you start but where you finish.


I went to a subpar high school and they did not prepare me for college at all. There were a few good teachers that did but my learning experience there was horrible. Then, I realized this school year I could’ve gone to a highly ranked high school in my area for FREE not too far from my house and probably gotten a better experience. My below averaged high school put me in a huge disadvantaged and I’m a little scared now.


I understand completely. That said, it’s old news. You have to move on and overcome. The good news is you’re aware and can remedy this.

One last piece of advice…don’t ever think you don’t belong.


In terms of working hours, I would say stick to 6-8 hours for your first semester. It’s going to be a huge adjustment and you don’t want to have to dig yourself out due to taking on too much.

You’ll get a syllabus, often before the first day of class or on that day. You must go through it carefully and enter the due dates in your phone or synch’ed calendar , with a reminder 1 week before, 2 days before, 1d before. For every single one. Then look at the overview week by week and start planning backwards.
When there’s a reference on a date, it means it’s due then - the reading must be done before class, the p-set must be completed before class, etc. “Reading done” means you highlighted bits but, most importantly, wrote down important notes, concepts, etc in your notebook* and added questions on a special “reserved” section of the page as you read. This way you can refer to it if the answer was given in the lecture, but if it wasn’t, you can ask during office hours.

Textbooks: do NOT buy new – rent them or buy “old” books, or, even better, use the “reserve” at the library(free). if you don’t have any money (they’re costly), ask a professors whether they might have an old copy you could use till you have enough money to buy a 2nd hand copy.

Office hours: professors LOVE to see students during office hours, especially during the beginning of the semester. It’s their opportunity to meet you one-on-one. (One week before the midterm is way to late, sth many freshmen learn the hard way.) So, come with your notes and questions. They’ll love answering them. If you didn’t understand a solution, show your work and ask where you went wrong. If everything was crystal clear, let them know, they’ll love the feedback on their lecture. If something interested you, ask for a book you could check out about it, or an article you could read, or a video you could watch.
Professors, unlike teachers, don’t hang out in their classroom. They don’t even have a classroom. They go in and out of the classroom they’ve been assigned, and after their lecture or seminar they leave because someone else comes in, so there’s no “chit chat” the way it is in HS. What they do have is an office, where they hang out, prep, read, etc. So, if you want to see your professors, go to office hours.

Book tutors during your first week, before others have the same idea. :slight_smile: Make sure to reserve in advance, a few days before each test or before any paper due date. Tutors are often the difference between a B and an A (and, yes, students who want A’s use tutors).

in HS, an AP class will have about 40 weeks of school, 5 hours a week, per subject. So, about 200 hours to cover, say, Calc AB.
In College, the equivalent of Calc AB is covered in 13-14 weeks, 4 hours a week. Do the math and imagine how much work you must do outside of class, with tutors, through office hours.
Now, multiply this by 4…

I’m not sure whether you CAN start ChemE in the Spring, since the core ChemE class is only offered in the Fall. Can you check with the department there?

If I read properly, in the Fall you’d take Math 16100, Chem 2000, Phys 17200, ENG 13100, and, I assume Freshman Composition – and all save for Freshman Comp would be pre-reqs … how does it work @momofboiler1 ?


To clarify things a little bit (which I forgot to add on my thread). Purdue doesn’t offer engineering in the spring 2022 semester for first time freshman, so I have to apply for an “exploratory studies” major and then once I maintain a certain GPA, I will change my major to FYE, and then chemical engineering. And I will also take a class in the summer to boost my GPA and get my required classes out the way.

Do you know what math you will be taking in Spring 2022? This will be important since all the science and engineering courses will revolve around where you are on the math path. From what I can tell, you will be in Exploratory Studies , then FYE. What is the GPA and courses required to get into FYE? There is also a GPA requirement from FYE to the engineering major.