If you’ve received a financial aid package with a work-study award, your first thought might be, “Now what?”

And you’re not alone. At first glance, the whole work-study process can seem a bit complicated and confusing. Chances are you’re wondering, “Is this a real job? Do I have to apply? Am I paid or does the money I make go to cover tuition?” But don’t be deterred. Work-study is extra money that is paid directly to you that you can choose put toward tuition and living expenses. Plus, a work-study job can help build your résumé and launch you into your career. Read on for expert advice on how to leverage your work-study opportunity to the fullest.

1. Budget and Save

“Students don’t understand that federal work-study is not an automatic source of financial aid, but rather payment for a job on campus,” explains Cathleen Sheils, the senior associate director of College Counseling at Solomon Admissions Consulting and the former director of Admissions at Cornell University. “Students need to budget when they receive a paycheck. While federal work-study is included within their financial aid package to offset educational expenses, the student ultimately decides how to spend the money.” This means that while work-study is shown as part of your financial aid package, it actually doesn’t automatically go to tuition costs and fees – it’s paid directly to you. So if you plan to put the money toward your school expenses, make sure you’re budgeting to save your work-study money.

“The best time to apply for jobs is before the semester starts since most supervisors want students who are able to start working the first or second week of classes.”

– Joanna Hamburg

2. Ask for Help Early

Once you see a work-study offer in your financial aid award package, touch base with the financial aid office or your school’s career center as soon as possible to ask about jobs. You won’t simply be placed with an employer — you have to apply. “Some students assume that they’re guaranteed a job and that it’s okay to wait until after they are on campus to apply for positions,” says Joanna Hamburg, who oversees the work-study program as part of McDaniel College’s Center for Experience and Opportunity. “The best time to apply for jobs is before the semester starts since most supervisors want students who are able to start working the first or second week of classes. Jobs do fill up quickly and students that wait to apply might not be able to secure one.” The application process varies from school to school and sometimes even job to job. Your school may offer online resources such as job boards or in-person job fairs when you get to campus in the fall. It’s important to find out your school’s process so you don’t miss out on the one you want to apply for.

3. Treat It Like a Real Job

Just because your offer includes work-study, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job. Treat it like a real interview and be professional. This extends after the application and interview process too. Your work-study role is a valuable tool for you to develop your professional skills and get early work experience in your area of interest. 

Even if the job you get is not related to your major, there’s still much you can learn. “Work-study positions offer transferable skills,” Hamburg points out. “Don’t be afraid to take a job even if it’s not necessarily in your field of study. It can still be a valuable learning experience.” 

Plus, your work-study supervisor can serve as a mentor and be helpful in writing you letters of recommendation for internships and post-grad jobs. “Perform well and exceed expectations so you can secure a strong recommendation letter for graduate school or a post-college professional position,” says Sheils. “Often your supervisor and team become a home away from home and source of support on campus. I employed many work-study students during my 20-plus year tenure at Cornell and was a resource for students around troubleshooting challenges, navigating difficult situations and, at times, offering a home-cooked meal.” Bottom line: No matter what job you end up taking, treat it like the real deal.

4. Tell the Hiring Manager You’re Work-Study

Employers may not automatically know that you’re a work-study student when you apply, so you need to tell them. “Many on-campus positions are only available to students with federal work-study, as the hiring department receives a financial incentive. They cover half the hourly rate of pay and the federal government covers the other half,” says Sheils. When applying for an on-campus job, make sure the employer is aware that you’re eligible for work-study, so you’ll be considered for the position.

5. Focus on Fit

There will be many places offering work-study employment and you’ll want to shop around. Pay is at least the federal or state minimum wage (whichever is higher) and can vary from job to job. Some jobs that require additional training, like being a lifeguard or working in IT support, may come with a higher wage. In addition to pay, be strategic about the type of job you take. “Once a student secures a position, they should take every opportunity that they can to develop new skills while they’re there,” says Hamburg. “To make full use of their experience, they should regularly communicate with their supervisor to ask for new projects and to ask for feedback. Supervisors want their students to have relevant opportunities that allow them to grow professionally.”

A work-study job is a fantastic opportunity. Follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to making the most of this financial aid offer.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2019.