Scholarships •

October 28, 2022

First generation scholarships: everything you need to know

Are you the first in your family to go to college? Congrats! Learn how first generation scholarships can help you pay for school.

First generation scholarship

A first-generation student is any student who is the first in their family to attend college or earn a 4-year college degree.

For many first-gen students, attending college is a huge source of pride—and a pathway toward greater opportunities in life. 

Unfortunately, it can also be tough to navigate all the steps required to research, apply for, and pay for college. 

First-gen students are largely on their own to navigate the complexities of financial aid, scholarships, and college itself. And in some cases, these unfair barriers can lead to worse education outcomes for first-generation students. 

A 2021 Pell Institute report found that low-income and first-generation students had a 21% chance of completing a bachelor’s degree. Students who weren’t low-income or first-generation had a much higher (66%) chance. 

While barriers to success are often high, first-gen students have one distinct advantage: access to first-generation scholarships!

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This guide will show you everything you need to know about first gen scholarships—including how to increase your odds of landing one.

What are first-generation scholarships?

First-generation scholarships are scholarships offered specifically to students whose parents didn’t attend college (or didn’t graduate with a 4-year degree). They may also be called “first-in-family” scholarships or first gen scholarships.

First Generation Scholarship Explained

If you’re a first-generation student, you’ll likely qualify for many of these scholarships—but you'll need to apply.

You can apply for any scholarships that you’re eligible for. If you’re awarded one, the funds are usually sent directly to your school to help cover the cost of tuition. 

Scholarships are free money for college or university that usually doesn’t need to be paid back (unlike student loans, which must be paid back). 

These scholarships are offered by schools themselves, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private businesses, foundations, and more. These funds can help ease the burdens that first-gen students face.

Plus, these scholarships help to improve the diversity of a school, which benefits students and faculty alike! 

If you feel intimidated by being the first in your family to attend college, know that you’re not alone. According to recent data from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), around 1/3 of all college students are considered first generation. 

Let’s look at more details of who qualifies for these juicy scholarships.

Who qualifies for first-in-family scholarships? 

Students may qualify for these types of scholarships if they’re considered “first-generation” students.

Definition of First Generation Student

However, the definition of “first generation” varies a bit depending on the school. 

According to a NASPA survey of college administrators, the most common definition was students from households where “neither parent or guardian earned a 4-year college degree.” 

So for most schools and scholarships, you’ll be considered first generation as long as neither of your parents (or guardians) graduated with a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

However, some scholarships are more restrictive. Some schools or organizations reserve these types of scholarships for students whose parents didn’t attend college at all—regardless of whether or not they earned a degree.

Be sure to look closely at the eligibility requirements for any scholarship you’re considering applying for. 

What other qualifications do I need?

Being a first gen student may get you in the door to some of these opportunities, but many scholarships have other qualifications as well. 

Other First Generation Scholarship Requirements

For instance, some first-generation scholarships may only be available to students who meet one or more of the following criteria: 

  • Current high school students or high school seniors

  • Eligible for a Pell grant

  • Meet or exceed a certain grade point average (GPA)

  • Is pursuing higher education in a specific field of study

  • Is a US citizen

  • Be an undergraduate student, or graduate student

  • Must be a certain minority, such as Black or Hispanic

As you can see, being first generation is only one qualifying factor. You’ll need to check the eligibility requirements of each scholarship to ensure that you meet them. 

Are you still a first-generation college student if your sibling went to college? 

What if your older sister or brother already went to college or is enrolling soon?

No worries—you’re still considered a first gen student. 

First-generation scholarship eligibility requirements only look at the student's parents, not their siblings. 

In fact, most don’t even look at the students' grandparents or other family members. All that matters to qualify is that your parents didn’t earn a 4-year degree.

How to find first generation scholarships 

Okay, so you qualify—now how do you go about actually finding this free money? Here’s the lowdown:

  1. File the FAFSA (this is a prerequisite for many scholarships)

  2. Talk to your school’s financial aid department

  3. Use online resources to find additional opportunities

Finding First Generation Scholarships

First things first, you’ll need to file the FAFSA. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Which is a mouthful—hence the "FAFSA" nickname.

You’ll need to do this first because it’s often a requirement to start applying for scholarships and other financial support. 

The FAFSA can be a confusing beast for first-timers, but don’t worry—Mos can help. Mos pairs you with a financial aid pro to avoid common FAFSA mistakes, match with top scholarships, and fill out those applications.

Once you’ve filed the FAFSA, your next stop should be your school’s financial aid department. They can help you find scholarship opportunities, including first gen scholarships. 

Plus, many schools directly offer first gen scholarships—meaning that the school itself is offering the money for these scholarships. 

Ask your school for a list of any scholarships that you may qualify for, and make it clear that you’re a first-generation student. 

But don’t box yourself in by only looking for first-gen scholarships! You may qualify for a broad range of scholarship opportunities, regardless of your first gen status. 

For instance, you may qualify for a merit scholarship based on your academic excellence or athletic performance. And you may qualify for federal grants based on your income.

Top resources for first-generation scholarships 

Here’s a helpful round-up of online resources that can help you find first-generation scholarships:

  • Mos: An all-in-one money app with the largest scholarship pool in the US, plus tools to help you match and apply.

  • BigFuture by CollegeBoard: A scholarship search engine run by a trusted nonprofit.

  • CareerOneStop: A scholarship search engine run by the US Department of Labor.

  • Your school’s website: Many colleges list scholarship opportunities directly on their websites. 

How to increase your odds of landing a first generation scholarship

Finding a college scholarship is just the first step. Next, you’ll need to apply—and hopefully, get approved for—a variety of scholarships. Here are some general tips to help you out.

How to Land a First Generation Scholarship
  • It’s a numbers game. Apply for a variety of scholarship opportunities to maximize your odds of getting enough to fund your education.

  • Make it clear that you’re first-gen. Be very clear in your application that you’re a qualifying first-generation college student so that you won’t be eliminated from consideration.

  • Take time on the essays and questions. Many scholarship applications ask students to answer questions or even write essays explaining why they deserve the scholarship. This is your opportunity to set yourself apart from the competition, so take your time!

  • Keep applying every year. Scholarships are available for college students throughout the course of their education, not just in the first academic year.

  • Keep an eye on deadlines. Each scholarship opportunity will have its own application deadline. Make a list of all the opportunities you plan to apply for, along with their respective due dates.

  • Don’t ignore small scholarships. We have a tendency to see that $5,000 scholarship and jump for it—while overlooking a variety of $500 scholarships. But the reality is that the smaller dollar amounts add up, and these smaller scholarships usually have fewer applicants.

  • Include a letter of recommendation. If possible, include a letter of recommendation in your scholarship application. This could be from a teacher, counselor, coach, or employer.

  • Keep an eye out for scams. Scholarship scams? Yep. Unfortunately, this is yet another area of life where we have to watch out for scams and phishing attempts. To avoid them, stick to reputable scholarship search resources. And if any “opportunity” asks you to pay an application fee—that’s a scam! 

Follow these tips, and you’ll be more likely to receive first-generation scholarships (or any scholarship, for that matter).

First-generation students and the FAFSA 

Alright, we’re back to talking about the FAFSA. Sick of it yet? We get it. 


But there’s a reason that every guidance counselor and student financial aid officer talks about it: The FAFSA is incredibly important. 

It can also be really confusing, particularly if you’ve never done it before. 

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Which is a mouthful—hence why everyone calls it "FAFSA." 

Filing the FAFSA is how students get access to federal grants, federal student loans, and many scholarship opportunities. Basically, any financial support for students coming from the federal government comes through the FAFSA process. 

To file the FAFSA, you’ll need:

  • Your personal information (name, income, age, etc.)

  • Your parents’ personal information

  • A list of your top 10 schools

  • And more—see our guide for more info 

Also, you need to submit the FAFSA every year that you’re in college

If you’ve never filed the FAFSA before, it’s helpful to have someone who can guide you through the process. If you use Mos, we’ll help you submit the FAFSA, and you’ll have your own financial aid expert to bounce questions off of. 

You can also head to your financial aid office. They’re usually happy to help first-timers figure out the FAFSA dance. However, try to go early, as financial aid offices can get really busy towards the FAFSA deadline (usually in June).

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Use Mos to get the most money for college 

Mos is on a mission. A mission to find you the most free money for school possible. 

What’s Mos? Well, it’s a complete money app for students. That means it offers a lot of things:

  • A simple way to see all the scholarships you’re eligible for

  • An all-in-one platform to apply for scholarships, grants, and federal aid

  • A financial aid and scholarship coaching program with 1:1 access to a college funding expert

  • Help finding side hustles so you can pick up fun gigs around campus and make some cash in your free time

Mos also provides access to the largest scholarship pool in America. Mos members have access to more than $160 billion in scholarships and federal aid.

And Mos automatically shows you the scholarships that you actually qualify for. So instead of spending countless hours searching for obscure scholarship opportunities, Mos brings them to you.

Plus, Mos helps you submit the FAFSA and can assign you a 1:1 coach to help with scholarships, financial aid, and more. Our coaches help students figure out which forms need to be filled out, which scholarships are likely to be worth applying for, and much more.

Our Mos coaches can even get help writing letters to your school to negotiate lower tuition rates.

Put simply, Mos is an all-in-one platform to help you handle every aspect of paying for college.

And we’re super proud to help thousands of first generation students pay for college and find academic success.

Mos advisors help students navigate all the complexities of college life (well, most of the complexities of college life…)

Learn more and get started today!


First-gen students certainly have more barriers to overcome than the average college student.

But with a variety of first-generation scholarship opportunities, students who plan ahead can take full advantage and get as much free money for college as possible.

Scholarships aren’t the only source of funds for college or university, however. Check out our complete guide to paying for college to learn more.

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