For most rising seniors, the school year has just ended. It seems like it is way too early to worry about all that college application stuff. After all, applications are not due until the fall and you can’t even file the FAFSA until October 1. So what’s the rush? Shouldn’t you be allowed to take some time and enjoy the summer, while appreciating your new status as a high school senior?
Well, of course you should have a little fun. But you can’t slack off the whole summer, and think you can somehow hit the ground running in September for college. Frankly, it’s just a little more complicated than that. Most students need to put a fair amount of time into the college application and financial aid process so they can get into a good college, and still have the funds available to pay for it.
Unfortunately, most students don’t have a billionaire come to their graduation and offer to pay off all of their student loans, so you need to lay the foundation now to be sure your college financial obligations won’t overwhelm you later on, and take over your life. Here are some steps you’ll need to take now to implement a college application summer action plan:
• It is not always a linear process: Getting into college is not a simple series of steps that follow neatly one after the other. You have to think about money, settle on possible colleges, learn about financial aid, and develop a back-up plan all at the same time. Parts of each component can go on simultaneously, while individual elements have to follow one after the other. Stop believing that you can get into a college first and worry about money later, because that could prove to be a fatal flaw in your thinking.
• Start thinking about the money early: Most college websites have a net price calculator which can help you understand how much it costs most students to attend that college. But keep in mind that you might not easily fit into the category of “most students.” A large part of the financial end of the equation depends on you and your eligibility for financial aid, your parents’ financial status and capability or willingness to pay, and your personal drive to look for scholarships that can help. While some students wait until they file the FAFSA and get the financial aid offers from their selected colleges, it is really better to get a professional college financial aid advisor involved earlier in the process that can help you develop a better picture regarding the cost involved of attending each college on your list. You don’t want to get emotionally invested in attending a college, and spend a lot of time applying to it, only to find out later on that it really is out of your price range.
• Take student loans seriously: While federal and private student loans can be very helpful in paying for college, too few students actually understand their long-term implications. That is why you hear so many stories of college graduates who are still living at home or struggling to pay off their college loans. Make sure you understand exactly how much money your parents are willing to contribute to your education, and get a really good handle on how much money you will be able to earn in your selected career path after graduation. Try to borrow the minimum amount needed to cover any financial aid gaps so you won’t get bogged down with a huge pile of debt later on. It is best to use student loan money for actual college expenses like tuition or room and board, and then try to earn money to pay for your personal expenses.
Keeping these considerations in mind, start the college application process early – pick a few target colleges including at least one reach and one safety school. Study their application and financial aid requirements carefully, and start working on individual pieces now. Get those letters of recommendation, and start writing essays. Don’t wait until the last minute, or you could find yourself scrambling.