I know you’ve just gotten the wrap off your gifts and are still in a holiday food haze, but if you’ve got a couple of weeks off of school for your winter break, this is the perfect time to shore up your college plans. It may seem like Fall 2014 is a light year away, but it will be here before you know it – and the deadlines for applications, scholarships and financial aid are within weeks.
Even if you submitted to your one or two hopeful colleges on Early Admission deadlines this month (or last), this is no time to rest on your laurels. Student loans are now averaging more than $29,000 per grad and if you can avoid that debt trap from the get-go, your financial future will be oh-so-much brighter. Read this roster of quick tips to get you on track to make sure you get into college and can afford it:
#1 Apply to a handful of schools
Even if your grades are top notch and you have no doubt you’ll get into your first choice school, you should still have some others in your back pocket. And if you’re not sure how you’ll fare with your preferred college, you need fall back options. Apply to four or five schools so you can have a wide array of choices that may become important depending on financial aid offers.
#2 Fine tune your essays
Your college essays are important and can mean the difference between getting into your first choice school or not. They are also especially critical when a scholarship application demands one. These should be written with care, edited meticulously and then taken to someone savvy for critique and feedback. Great application and scholarship essays can get you into the college you want and get you there for less money out of pocket.
#3 Follow up on your documents
Each of your colleges applied to will need transcripts and letters of recommendation. Don’t take it for granted that these got there – check your application status online and call the admission office if anything is showing still required. Don’t wait until the last minute for this – check early and check often until you verify that each application and required supplements have been received.
#4 Complete your FAFSA
You must complete your Free Application for Financial Aid (FAFSA) and there’s no reason to leave it until the last minute. This will factor into your financial aid determinations for grants, scholarships and loans and must be submitted in a timely manner. Don’t pay a fee to a service to do it for you – it’s straight forward and easily done with a parent’s help. And when your student aid report is issued, scrutinize it for errors and get any corrected ASAP.
#5 Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships
This is free money that can keep you out of debt so no stone should go unturned. Have your parents check to see if their work offers grants or scholarships for offspring. If you work part-time, check with your employer as well (Chick-fil-A and other companies hand out college money to solid employees). And don’t blow off smaller ones in the $100-$500 range – every $1 less you have to borrow is critical.
As soon as you sign on for that first student loan, be sure to also sign up with Tuition.io – our free student loan tool will help you track, manage and optimize your debt so that you always know where you stand. And be sure to read our blog for tips on paying less for school and dealing with your loans.