Student Life

Tips for Making the Most of Your College Experience

You’ve probably heard either your parents, your friends, or one of your family members say that “College is the greatest time in your life,” and they certainly aren’t wrong.  College is awesome in that you are living on your own for the first time, you are more independent, and you are given the opportunity to make a whole group of new friends.  However, with the college experience comes responsibilities.  This is why we’ve come up with a few tips on how to make the most of your college experience.

Join a student group or organization.  Especially if you join an organization that fits your major field, this can be a great way to build your resume.  In an article by  Sam Coren at StudentAdvisor.com, these types of groups offer you opportunities that you might not be able to learn in the classroom, like leadership and managerial experience.  This also shows that you can manage multiple tasks at once, and can demonstrate to a prospective employer that you actually did make the most of your time in college.

However, you won’t just get job experience from joining a student group.  You are also becoming connected with people who share at least one common interest with you.  In this way joining student groups will give you a chance to meet new people, especially if you’re typically a little shy.

Do an internship.  While working at the coffee shop near campus will pay your bills, you may also want to think about taking on an internship.  This is not only a great way to build job experience, but it can also help you decide what you want to do (or not do) for a career.  However, you should be aware that not all internships are paid (check out our previous post on internships here).

Consider studying abroad.  If you have the chance, you may want to consider studying abroad.  This type of experience will not only give you a chance to travel and receive college credit (one less class you have to take!), but it will also expose you to an entirely new culture, new place and a new group of people.

Get to know your professors.  According to Coren, you don’t need to have a problem or a question to visit your professors.  If your professor has office hours, you may want to just stop by to see what they are working on or talk with them about current events.  The relationships you build with your professors cannot only help you in their class, but it can also help you throughout the rest of your college career.  If you build good enough relationships with your professors, you may even be given valuable research opportunities, or these could be the people you turn to for recommendations for a job, graduate school, or internships.

While each of these are great opportunities for you to consider when you go off to college this fall, there are some other things you may want to consider to ensure that you don’t fall behind.

Go to class.  In an article by  Miranda Marquit on Money Crashers, she says the first most important thing students need to do is go to class.  Many students after about the third or fourth week of class start getting sick of getting up for an 8 am class, and so they stop showing up.  This is probably the biggest mistake you can make because 1) you’re paying for it, so it’s a waste of money if you don’t show up half the time; 2) more often that not, your professor is going to factor attendance into your grade, and 3) you’re going to miss a lot of information and assignments you’ll need to make it through the class.

Don’t overschedule yourself.  For some students, one of the biggest problems they run into is just not having enough time to do all of their homework, go to their internship, and go to work.  Some students, in fact, have more than one job at a time.  The key is to not overschedule yourself because if you do, you’ll end up losing out.  Make sure that your schedule doesn’t overload you so much so that you’re overtired all the time, you don’t have time to study for that big exam, or you never have time to do your homework.  You have to remember that you are a student first and foremost, so that means school comes first.

Have fun.  This is especially important; students need to make sure they have fun during college.  This should be one of the greatest times in your life and something you should look back on fondly.  In college you’re given more opportunities than ever, and you should really make the most of them.  While this should include making the most of your academic experiences, it should also include your social and personal experiences.  Don’t let yourself get too bogged down by the stresses associated with college life; make sure to take some time out for yourself to have fun.

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Ask the Expert, College Planning, Finances

ASK THE EXPERT: College Financial Planning, Part 3

For the third installment in our college planning series, we wanted to know what were some of the biggest issues encountered by students when applying for financial aid.  Once again, we spoke with Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com and expert on paying for college, to give us his perspective on this issue and how students can maximize their federal student aid.

According to Kantrowitz one of the major problems he identifies is that students often do not fully understand the reality of the loans they receive.  Kantrowitz explains that students will sign their name to a loan so long as it enables them to fulfill their dreams.  Many believe that they will figure out how to pay back the loan when they graduate from college.  However, this is a major problem, explains Kantrowitz, as it is much more difficult to figure out how to pay back the loan after you have incurred that cost, rather than before.   He urges that “If you’re choosing a college and your dream is to study a field that doesn’t pay very well, you need to make sure you borrow less to match your expected income when you graduate.”  While this could mean going to a cheaper school, it could also mean just limiting other costs while attending school.  Kantrowitz suggests buying used textbooks, selling textbooks back to the bookstore, taking fewer trips home, and eating out less.  He advises  “You have to live like a student while you’re in school so that you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate.”

Another major problem Kantrowitz identifies is that student often will not file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early enough, and will consequently receive less financial aid.  Instead he urges students not to wait until they have filed their income tax information, but rather file their FAFSA based on projected income information and their previous income tax information.

To maximize financial aid with FAFSA, Kantrowitz urges students to be aware that income is weighted much more heavily than assets, and assets in a child’s name count much more heavily (about 20% are counted against aid eligibility) than those in the parent’s name (5.64% or less is counted against aid eligibility).  He explains that if you currently have a Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) account to help save for college, you may want to consider moving the money to a custodial 529 college savings plan account.  Kantrowitz advises that this is the most tax advantageous ways of saving for college, and that this will help students to maximize the financial aid they receive.

By saving, being frugal and being mindful, Kantrowitz explains that students can make the most of their experience, while still being able to afford college.  It is important that students stay informed when it comes to paying for college so that they may make decisions that are right for them.

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Ask the Expert, College Planning, Finances

ASK THE EXPERT: College Financial Planning, Part 1

For our newest blog series, we wanted to look at college planning and financial aid, as the student debt crisis has most certainly been a hot topic in the media recently.  For this series, we wanted to know exactly what students need to understand when it comes to financial aid, college financial planning, loan repayment, and student debt.  It just seems so complicated!

For the first installment in the “Ask the Expert:  College Financial Planning” series, we wanted to know what students should be concerned about when it comes to finances and applying for college.  To find out more, we spoke with Mark Kantrowitz, a noted financial aid and college planning author and publisher of FinAid and FastWeb, two resources for students looking to find out more about financial aid options available to them.

Kantrowitz tells us that students should ideally start looking at financial aid options as early as possible.  Often many students start looking their senior year, however, many of the deadlines have already passed.  Kantrowitz says that students looking to get scholarships should be planning for deadlines as early as junior year (if not earlier), so that they can get their applications in for those scholarships with deadlines in the fall of the their senior year.  He explains students should start considering financial aid as early as possible, as this increases the number of scholarships available to them, including those that they may earn in earlier grades.

According to Kantrowitz, when it comes to examining their options, they should weigh the cost of financial aid.  For students, he says, saving is always the better option.  “Every dollar you save is a dollar less that you’re going to have to borrow and every dollar you borrow, will cost you about $2 by the time you pay back the debt.”  It is simply the more affordable options, because when you save, you earn interest and when you borrow, you will pay interest. He gives us the example that, “If you were to save $200 per month for 10 years at 6.8% interest, you’d accumulate about $34,400.  If instead you were to borrow and pay back over 10 years at 6.8% interest, you’d pay $396/month.”  That would roughly double what one would pay if they were to save money instead.

Kantrowitz explains that students should also be aware of the actual cost of college.  He says that students should utilize a net price for college, which is the difference between the cost of attendance and just grants and scholarships.  “Think of it as a discounted sticker price.”  He explains that using this figure is a better basis for evaluating the cost of college rather than utilizing other cost evaluations.  Especially when it comes to the net price figures that schools will often provide on their websites.  Kantrowitz explains that these numbers will often include financial aid packages and loans, that do not actually lower the cost, but will rather increase the cost.

Kantrowitz also urges students to use caution with net price calculators that universities are now required to provide on their websites.  He explains that since October 2011 schools have mandated to host a calculator, however, he says that they really should only be used to determine a ballpark figure for net price.

According to Kantrowitz, there are a couple of major issues with these calculators.  The first major concern with these calculators is the number of questions the calculator has.  He says that much of the accuracy of these calculators is dependent upon the number of questions that they ask; while the standard calculator provided by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) contains approximately 10 questions, other calculators such as the one provided by the College Board, contain more questions.  The more questions a calculator has, the more accurate the calculator will be, he explains.  While these calculators are will mean more work for the user, they will produce much more accurate results.

The second concern Kantrowitz points out is that the age of data will play into the accuracy of the calculator.  He explains that calculators like those provided by NCES contain data that is approximately 2 years old, while those like the one provided by the College Board are current, and are more up-to-date.  In either case, Kantrowitz explains, one should use caution with these calculators and should not exclude any colleges on the sole basis of the figures provided by a net price calculator.

The last major concern Kantrowitz points to relates to the financial aid award letter.  He explains that students should be careful when they receive their financial award letter that they understand the characterization of the different awards and understand which award they were given.  “I’ve had families come to me thinking that they’re getting a free ride from a college, and when I look at the financial aid award letter I see $5,000 in student loans and $20,000 in parent loans.  That’s far from a free ride.”  Students should really do their homework when it comes to the different classifications of financial aid, so they know that when they receive a grant, they know which grant they have received and what this implies.

Overall, Kantrowitz urges students to start considering college financial aid early and often, and to do their homework when it comes to understanding the different options available to them.  He explains that students and their families should always exercise caution when it comes to financial aid and to make financial aid decisions that work best for them.

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Roommates, Student Life

Choosing Your College Roommate: Why Rooming with Your Best Friend May Not be the Best Idea

When you head off to college, it is one of the scariest times in your life; you’re away from most of the people you know, you are living away from home, and you’re starting a whole new chapter in your life, all at once.  This may also be the first time you’ll be sharing a room with someone, and it can be an incredibly scary to think that you’ll be sharing a room with someone whom you don’t know.  You will immediately ask yourself “Who do I know that I could room with?”

In an article we read by Julie and Lindsey Mayfield on U.S. News and World Report, they explain that while it may be tempting, your first choice shouldn’t be your best friend.  While you feel like it may take a lot of the pressure off the situation, you may actually be putting more stress on the relationship.  This is because when you move away for school, you are not only trying to get used to living with someone else, but you are also just trying to get used to being away at school.  Considering all of this, it can end disastrously.

In another article we read by University Language Services, they explain that besides the fact that you may lose your best friend, there’s a myriad of other problems you can encounter.  First, your social life can take hit because you are often less likely to push yourself to make new friends.  Second, you may miss out on new experiences.  By choosing to room with your best friend you are less likely to seek out new friendships, and are therefore less likely to experience new people and new things. Third, your old habits will be harder to break.  When you live with your best friend you are more likely to hold onto your old habits and your more likely to stick to your old routine.  By living with new people, you could introduce yourself to new things that you might not otherwise have tried.  Lastly, your work ethic (and your bank account) are sure to suffer.  If you live with your best friend, you may end up spending more time socializing than you do on your schoolwork, as your room will double as a study and social area on a daily basis.   You will also most likely be going out more often, and so your wallet will suffer too.

Alternatively, many suggest that living with a friend (rather than a best friend), or even living with a stranger are better options than living with your best friend.  Not only will this experience expose you to new people and new things, but you friendships will remain in tact.

When you’re encountering any situation with a roommate, it’s always a good idea to set out a list of ground rules and expectations for the room beforehand.  In a previous post to our blog, we gave you a list of topics that may be useful to discuss with your roommate.  According to the Mayfields, you just have to realize sharing can get tricky, and that you have to open and honest when problems do arise. While you don’t have to be best friends, it is in the best interest of both of you to ensure that you can get along for at least the next year.

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College Planning

Tips for Preparing for College

If you’re heading off to college in the fall, you may have already realized that this summer is going to be intense.  While it’s probably the most exciting time in your life, it’s also the saddest, the scariest, and the most stressful.  It’s the time of graduation parties and group outings sending off everyone who’s going off to college.  However, it’s also that time you realize you won’t see those same people everyday anymore, the time you’ll have to meet a whole group of new friends, the time you realize you’ll most likely be living on your own in the fall, and the time you’ll have to prepare for all of this in 3 short months.  It’s nowhere close to being easy, however, there are some things that you can do to get everything in order and reduce some of your stress.

In an article we read by Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman in U.S. News and World Report, they suggest some tips to get you prepared.

  1. Go to orientation.  Although it seems pointless to you now, it’s something that will really help get your prepared for what is to come in the fall.  While those “ice breaker” activities may be killer, you’ll learn some important things about your school, including how to get around campus, what the dorms look like, and where to go if you need help.  This is also the time that you’ll set up your course schedule.  This way, you’ll know what to expect come September.
  2. Surf the school’s website.  Surfing the school’s website is a great way to see what majors they offer (if you haven’t decided yet or you’re considering double-majoring), you can see what on-campus activities there are, you can see what the requirements for your major will be, and you’ll get a taste for what other courses are offered.
  3. Friend your roommate.  When you find out who your roommate will be, you may want to initiate contact with them via Facebook or Twitter.  That way you can get a sense of who they are, what they’re like, and maybe you’ll get a chance to decide who’s bringing the fridge and who’s bringing the microwave.
  4. Get some furnishings.  When it comes to dorm room decorating, it isn’t a bad idea to start thinking of the things that you’ll need and the things that will make your half of the room seem a little like home.  You’ll want to make sure to bring desk lamps and bedding, but you may also want to consider some picture frames or posters to personalize your space.
  5. Improve your mind.  You’ll want to catch up on your reading, before your professors start packing on the required readings.  Believe us when we say that you won’t really get a chance to read for pleasure once the semester starts.
  6. Get wired.  If you don’t already have a computer, you’ll want to start shopping for one.  This doesn’t mean you have to buy one now, but you may want to start looking to see what’s out there, what you can afford, and what you couldn’t live without.  You may also want to wait until late July or August to purchase a computer.  A lot of stores willhave back to school deals on computers.  This will shave some of the cost for you, and you may get some an added bonuses like repair coverage or a rebate for an mp3 player. If you’re considering getting a desktop computer, you may want to consider the benefits having a more portable computer that you could bring with you to the library if you want to study there, or if you want to bring your laptop to class.
  7. Make a deal with your parents.  To avoid future conflicts with your parents, talk to them about how often you’ll be coming home, and how often they should expect to hear from you while you’re at school.  You may also want to talk about who will be covering what college costs, if you will be splitting some of the costs.  It’s worth the conversation now to save everyone the grief later.
  8. Service your car.  It’s the perfect time to make sure you get your oil changed and get an inspection before you head off to school.  If you’re leaving your hometown, this may be particularly helpful so that you won’t have to find a mechanic while you’re at school.
  9. Get yourself checked up.  You’ll have to make sure you’re up on all your vaccinations anyway before you head off to school, so you can also use this time to get a check up and fill any prescriptions you need.  While your school will most likely have a health service on campus, you may prefer to talk to your own physician beforehand.
  10. Organize your finances.  You’ll want to make sure that all your bank accounts and credit cards are set up and in order before you leave.  You’ll also want to make sure that you fill out all the necessary paperwork for any loans, scholarships, or financial aid you’ll need.
  11. Organize your life.  This is the perfect time to get a calendar or planner to start figuring out your schedule will look like.  When will you start classes?  When will you have finals?  When is your winter break?
  12. Start looking for part-time jobs.  To make a little extra cash, we suggest looking for a part-time job.  A lot of universities offer student positions, so you may want to check their employment websites.  You may also want to look around the campus to see if any businesses are hiring.
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