How first-generation college students should find internships and entry-level jobs was originally published on College Recruiter.
First-generation college and university students in the United States are defined as those whose parents did not attend college. According to Wikipedia, first-generation college students tend to be older, come from families with lower incomes, attend college part-time, live off-campus, and have more work responsibilities as compared to continuing-generation college students.
First-generation students can be found in every academic setting and at every college and university in the country. They’re of different races, cultures, and social classes. But what they typically share is a mismatch between the environments in which they were raised and that of their school. That makes intuitive sense to me as a child of parents and grandchild of grandparents who all attended college as I wasn’t surprised by most of what I encountered when in undergraduate and then graduate but my friends who were first-generation students were often bewildered and struggled to adapt. The families of those friends wanted just as badly or even more badly than mine to help with how to enroll, choose classes, study, prepare for finals, and more. Those families, however, were at a disadvantage as compared to mine as they simply did not have the personal experiences of having attended college themselves. My friends, therefore, were also at a disadvantage and had to work hard and smart just to get to the same playing field that I landed on with little effort of my own.
Some might think that there aren’t many first-generation students and that the problems they face therefore aren’t all that important to society. Those people would be wrong. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 33.5 percent of undergraduate students are first-generation college students. And it isn’t just students of certain age groups who are first-generation. It transcends age groups. NCES reported that the following percentages of college students by age had parents whose highest education level was high school or less:
- 27.5% of students 18 years old or younger
- 27.4% of students 19–23 years old
- 35.6% of students 24–29 years old
- 42.1% of students 30–39 years old
- 50.2% of students 40 years old or older
Additionally, first-generation students are also not confined to those financially independent from their parents nor to those who are married nor to those with children. NCES also reported the percentage of undergraduate students who are first-generation by financial dependency, marital status, and with children or other dependents:
- 25.4% of dependent students
- 41.3% of independent students
- 35.6% of students who are unmarried without dependents
- 37.5% of students who are married without dependents
- 47.5% of students who are unmarried with dependents
- 44.0% of students who are married with dependents
Some might think that first-generation students are almost all people of color. There is certainly some correlation there, but first-generation students are a sizeable minority across all races. According to NCES, they are:
- 47.8% of Hispanic students
- 42.0% of Black African-American students
- 39.6% of American Indian students
- 32.9% of Asian students
- 27.9% of White students
- 24.6% of Pacific Islander students
- 23.9% of students of two or more races
There is also a strong correlation between the type of school and whether a student is first-generation or not. NCES reports that almost half of undergraduates enrolled in for-profit schools are first-generation. That compares to:
- 33.0% of undergraduates at public universities
- 56.2% of undergraduates at less that 2-year public universities
- 38.3% of undergraduates at 2-year public universities
- 25.9% of undergraduates at 4-year public universities
- 23.1% of undergraduates at private nonprofit universities
When it comes to first-generation students searching for part-time, seasonal, internship, and entry-level jobs, there is good and bad news. Let’s address the bad news first. The bad news is that many and probably most employers pay little regard to the status of a candidate as first-generation. An employer might consider a candidate to be a more attractive addition to their team if that candidate is diverse due to their race, gender, military status, or disabilities but fewer would also consider a candidate to be diverse due to them being first-generation. That’s unfortunate, as a first-generation student will inevitably bring a different perspective to the workforce than a continuing-generation student. And it is that different perspective that makes diversity so attractive to leading organizations as they recognize that the more diverse a workforce is, the more productive that workforce is. The good news is that more and more employers are expanding their definitions of diversity, and many of these are finding that their best employees are non-traditional in some way. At College Recruiter, for example, we love to hire candidates who we call scrappers, for they tend to work harder and stay with us for a longer period of time, both of which make them more productive.
If you’re a first-generation student or just trying to help one, here are some concrete pieces of advice:
- Network as soon and as much as possible. Many think of networking as asking others for help in finding a job. There is some truth to that, but networking is more effective when you’re looking for ways to help others and they, inevitably, look for ways to reciprocate.
- Ask your academic advisor for help. Students whose parents went to college can and typically will ask their parents for advice about how to search for a job or even for introductions to hiring managers. For first-generation students, that kind of help is often best coming from their college career service office or other academic advisors.
- Don’t be so desperate to land an internship that you accept an unpaid internship when you could have obtained similar work experience and be paid for it by working as a part-time or seasonal employee. Unpaid internships hurt society as they’re typically only available to the wealthy, or at least members of upper-middle-class families. The rest of us need to earn money in order to eat. What a first-generation student might not grasp is that the vast majority of employers could care less if you have successfully completed an internship. What they really want to see is a demonstrated ability to do the work for which they are hiring. If you’ve done that work before as a volunteer, part-time worker, or seasonal employee, you will be more likely to be hired than your wealthier friend who has completed multiple internships but none whose job duties were similar to the job you’re now applying to.
- Search out free services and make good use of them. Many career-related sites, including College Recruiter, are free to candidates. Some charge fees to their users but waive them for those who can prove they’re currently enrolled college students. Your classmates may be able to afford to hire a career coach or pay a website for some kind of assistance, but that doesn’t mean that you’re unable to get the same help. You’re likely going to have to search harder and may find it more difficult to get the information, but career-related information is widely available and so what they’re mostly paying for is the convenience of having it handed to them all nicely packaged.
- Be candid with the hiring manager about your financial needs. The vast majority of employers want to pay their employees fairly. The issue for many, however, is that they don’t know what “fair” is when it comes to competition. If they don’t know, help them. Search for similar jobs with similar employers in similar metro areas on a site like College Recruiter that displays alongside very job posting the actual or estimated compensation and then show that to your hiring manager. If they feel the job to which you’re applying isn’t comparable and should pay less, they should be able to articulate that and that will provide you with an opportunity to diplomatically refute their statements. Be prepared to make your case with the hiring manager what they should pay you in order for that compensation to be fair.
- Don’t hide your status as a first-generation student. Instead, trumpet it. Explicitly state that your status as a first-generation student makes you non-traditional and that makes you diverse. Literally include those keywords in your resume. Why? Because recruiters who keyword search the resumes submitted to the jobs they’ve advertised will often include in their searches keyword phrases like first-generation or, more commonly, non-traditional or, even more commonly, diverse. If your resume has all of those keywords, then it will be far more likely to come up in that search by that recruiter, and that will make it far more likely that you’ll be interviewed and, ultimately, hired. In short, make sure that your resume is keyword-rich.
- Be confident in your abilities. It is difficult for any candidate to grasp how random the job search process is. An employer with a dozen recruiters will have a dozen different preferences for how those resumes should look, what information should be on them, what keywords they’ll use to pull up that resume, whether it should be accompanied by a cover letter, and more. And if you’re applying to a dozen jobs, now you’re going to have dozens and perhaps hundreds of different preferences from those employers. Accept that some will irrationally overlook your ability to do the work. It isn’t feasible for you to change how they source their candidates. But what is feasible is to make it as easy for them as possible to identify you as the lowest risk candidate. Recruiters and hiring managers want to hire efficiently and effectively. They want to interview as few candidates as possible, extend offers to those most likely to accept, and onboard those most likely to quickly succeed in the role. Help them easily see that you’ve done the same or very similar work because, if you do, your chances of being hired and succeeding in that job will skyrocket.