Dear 17-year-old Grace, Good news: You got into UC Berkeley after all!

You followed the news with a high-decibel victory lap around the house and the inevitable spending spree on all things Cal (Pro tip: don’t buy the coaster; you’ll never use it). But a little later, a dark cloud of responsibility settled over the moment as you asked, How will I pay for this journey?

Well, never fear, 20-year-old Grace is here. There is a plethora of things I wish I had known before college, including the fact that it is basically impossible to wake up for 8 a.m. classes and potato chips are not a sufficient dinner. But by far the most important intel I lacked while applying to and subsequently picking a college fell on the financial side of the experience. There’s so much I didn’t know.

Arguably, the most crucial piece of advice I can give you is to know your deadlines like the back of your hand. With your high school workload and all the extracurriculars you’ve deemed critical to your existence, you will run into trouble keeping track of the due dates of the FAFSA® (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and scholarship applications. So make an online calendar specifically dedicated to college-related information. It’s a fast and easy reference point that ensures you receive reminders on both your computer and phone, so deadlines won’t slip through the cracks. It is also of the utmost importance that you apply for scholarships at the soonest possible date, because you’ll be qualified for more money simply because there are more funds left to give out earlier in the cycle.

Now, you need to get real about your financial situation and what colleges fit that criteria, with or without the help of financial aid. You and your family may not quite qualify for need-based aid, but there’s always merit-based aid — typically given through individual schools or private scholarships — to consider. You can get it based on academic or even extracurricular accomplishments, so that competitive checkers club you’re in might prove helpful in the real world after all. Even though you mainly go to French club for the snacks, being a Francophile could pay off too. Leave no stone unturned when it comes to searching for merit-based aid, because I guarantee there are ceilings left to smash for aid money.

And for Pete’s sake, fill out the FAFSA. It’s the first step in determining your eligibility for college financial aid, so there’s no reason not to. You definitely don’t want to leave free money on the table to help pay for your tuition.

If you’re unsure about which college you have been accepted to will be the best financial move, contact them. They will, at the very least, make sure you have the tools you need, both academically and financially, to make an informed decision. Don’t hesitate to ask them for a little more support — you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Any school that picked you out of the thousands and thousands of kids who applied wants you to be there. After all, colleges are businesses too, and they’re eager to invest in those who they believe will do great things.

Lastly, don’t choose a college based solely on finances. Of course you need to make sure that wherever you choose is somewhere you can realistically afford, but this is also where you’re going to spend the next four years of your life, and you want to be as sure as possible it’s the best place for you. As cliché as it might sound, the friendships, memories, late nights and many, many cups of coffee will cling to you for life.

Love,
Grace

FAFSA® is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.