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23 Life Hacks Every First-Generation College Student Needs to Know

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

Table of Contents

Happy Fall! If you’re a college student reading this right now, you may be preparing—if you haven’t started already—for your first week of classes back on campus (or your first week of classes at college, ever!).

To help you make the most of your college experience, I've compiled my top college life hacks.

If you’re a first-generation college student like I was, these are the tips that I wish someone had told me sooner.

If you’re a first-generation college student like I was, these are the tips that I wish someone had told me sooner.

Not a first-gen college student? Don’t leave yet! Given that 56% of undergrads in the U.S. are first-gen, there’s a good chance that a friend, student, or mentee of yours is first-gen—and would appreciate you sharing these college success strategies with them.

And hey, who knows—maybe there’s a hack or two in here that you may not have known yourself!

To my future first-generation college grads: Remember that your determination and resilience have helped bring you this far. Now, it’s time to use that very same strength to succeed in college!

My top 23 life hacks for first-gen college students:

1. Befriend older students.

  • They can tell you which classes to take (and which ones to avoid).
  • They’ll also be the ones returning to campus to hire in a few years’ time.

2. Subscribe to club emails.

  • You’ll learn about who’s coming to campus.
  • You’ll also learn where the events and parties (and free food) are.

3. Use your smartphone calendar.

  • Put every commitment into your smartphone calendar and sync it across devices.
  • You’ll never miss a deadline or event (and will actually make time for things).

4. Say “hi” to someone new everyday.

  • You never know whom you might meet.
  • 10 years from now, you won't remember what was taught in class, but you will remember the friends you made.

5. Take on a leadership role.

  • Do this by joining at least one club that relates to your interests or future career.
  • Being on the executive team puts you in touch with alumni in a way that being a mere member never can.

6. Go to at least one party or social event every week with a group you like.

  • You’ll thank me later for all the friends you make.
  • And no, you don’t have to drink.

7. Get into a workout routine.

  • You’ll be more energized, healthy, alert, and confident.
  • This is a habit that will serve you well for the rest of your life, so you might as well get a head start now.

8. Learn to skim.

  • Few people actually read every word of every reading that’s assigned.
  • And, as you’ll soon learn, few adults in the real world read either; everyone just skims!

9. Don’t go home so quickly.

  • Do your work in the dining hall, in common spaces, and in the library.
  • Again, you never know whom you’ll meet.

10. Reflect upon what you want to do after college

  • Then, pay attention to the deadlines and requirements (whether for jobs or for grad school).
  • Far too many soon-to-be graduates want to do X, only to realize they should have started preparing 3.5 years ago.
  • I’ve got a resource for you!

11. Look for free money or discounts.

  • Whether it’s paid spring break trips, research funding, scholarships, public transit passes, student discounts, or access to free software and publications through your school, look for a free (or cheaper) option before you pay for a full-priced option.
  • Again: keep track of deadlines in the case of funding!

12. Build a relationship with at least one professor who has experience in what you want to do—and stay in touch with them.

  • Go to their office hours. Send them a thank-you email.
  • And, future reference letters are a lot easier to navigate when you already have someone who knows you well.

13. Work on at least one side hustle that you’d consider continuing after graduation.

  • Whether you’re drafting a screenplay, creating content, coding an app, or volunteering for a certain cause, a passion project is a great way to build relationships, build your resume, and maybe even build your future career.
  • One of the biggest things about college that you'll soon miss in adulthood are extracurricular activities. You'll be glad you started a side project that you can take with you even after college ends.

14. Get good enough grades for what you want to do.

  • That means checking the requirements, especially if you’re looking at grad school or certain hard-to-get jobs.
  • But… don’t stress out over that last 0.1 GPA. No one will ask you for your GPA 10 years from now.

15. Don’t be afraid to ask for extensions or exceptions.

  • Need to attend an interview? Have a family emergency? Stressed over conflicting deadlines and don’t know if you can submit something on time? Approach your professor after class and explain your situation.
  • People want to help you—but they can only help you if they know what’s going on.

16. Check your email—and respond to people promptly.

  • Especially if they’re helping you or giving you an opportunity or interview!
  • You don’t want others to interpret your slow response as you not caring. You also never know how many other people are receiving that same email—and claiming a spot before you.

17. Always send thank you emails.

  • Whenever someone gives you time, send them a thank you and explain why you’re thankful.
  • 99/100 college students just ghost their interviewer / mentor / professor. Be that 1/100.

18. Plan to do something that helps you build your resume and explore your interests every summer.

  • You won’t get that cool job at that big-name company in your first summer, but, if you work at a small company your first summer and a mid-sized company your second summer, you will get that big-name company your third summer.
  • No one tells you this, but students with great extracurriculars and summer internships get hired over students who have perfect GPAs—but an otherwise empty resume—all the time.

19. Get a credit card (and maybe an on-campus job).

  • Having a credit card allows you to start building your credit history (not to mention accumulate reward points). Just make sure you pay it off fully every month!
  • If you’re international on an F-1 student visa, an on-campus job qualifies you to get a social security number, which comes in handy later.

20. International students on an F-1 student visa: Plan your OPT strategically.

  • OPT stands for "Optional Practical Training." Research which majors at your school qualify you for an "OPT STEM extension."
  • If neither OPT nor STEM extension are familiar to you right now, visit your international students’ office (and ask older international students for their advice).

21. Double dip—and triple-dip—whenever possible to save time.

  • Picking between two classes? All else equal, pick that class that satisfies multiple requirements.
  • Picking between two clubs? All else equal, pick that club that helps you build both your resume and your friend circle.

22. Keep your LinkedIn profile updated.

  • Add everything that you’re doing in terms of clubs, internships, and part-time jobs on your profile.
  • You never know who might look you up. And, people can’t give you credit for what you’ve done if you don’t write it down.

23. Find your six closest friends—and don’t worry about the people who drain your energy.

  • You won’t be friends with everyone, and that’s okay. What’s most important is that you walk away with six (or five or four!) close friends.
  • Those are the type of friends that matter—the ones you feel comfortable calling out of the blue.

College can be scary. It’s your first step into independence!

It’s also your first opportunity to start building the life you want.

I believe in you!

PS Planning to graduate this winter? Congratulations!! Here’s some friendly advice for new grads: How to become your own professor in the school of life.