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 later, a dark cloud of responsibility settled over the celebration as you wondered, 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 had to do with 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® (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. You’ll be qualified for more money simply because there are more funds available to distribute earlier in the cycle.

Now, you need to get real about your financial situation and what colleges fit your personal circumstances, 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 offered by individual schools or private scholarships — to consider. You can qualify for aid based on academic or even extracurricular accomplishments, so that competitive checkers club you’re in might prove helpful after all. Even though you participate in French Club primarily 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’s a surprising number of sources to tap 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 that should be your starting point. 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 the students they believe will go on to do great things. 

Lastly, don’t choose a college based solely on finances. Of course you need to be certain that the school you select is a place you can realistically afford, but this is also where you’re going to spend the next four years, and you want to be as sure as possible it’s the best place for you. As cliché as it might sound, the friendships, experiences, late-night conversations and memories will enrich your life for years and years to come. 

Love,

Grace

This article was written in 2017.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.