Congratulations--after months of test taking, essay writing and application filing, you've finally been accepted to college! But now what should you do? From packing up your room to shopping for dorm décor to saying goodbye to your closest high school friends, preparing for your first year of college can get pretty hectic. Your freshman year will be full of new beginnings and, the closer you get to move-in day, the harder it will be to stay organized. Don't let the stress and excitement of these next few months prevent you from making smart decisions about your campus experience. As you get ready to kiss high school goodbye, here are a few tips to help you prepare for--and make the most of--your first year of college:
• Consider the costs and set a budget. How are you planning to pay for college? The first step for budgeting is to get a sense of the cost of tuition, fees and living expenses. List out income sources (like work-study) and estimated college expenses for each month to figure out how much you'll need. Set a budget that includes tuition and registration fees, books and supplies, housing, meals, transportation and entertainment. If the numbers start to look daunting, remember there are a number of ways to save money, such as purchasing used books online for a cheaper price, shopping at places that offer student discounts and taking a summer class at your local community college.
• Do your homework on meal plans and housing. Room and board charges are costly. According to The College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges, the average published room and board charges for full-time students at public four-year colleges during the 2014-2015 school years is $9,804. Many schools require freshmen to live on campus, but some give you the option of requesting a particular residence hall. If this is the case at your school, tour the different residence halls to get a sense for which housing option is right for you, keeping in mind that private rooms ("singles") may be more expensive than sharing a room or suite. If you'd prefer to live off-campus, first check your school's policy, and then explore those options to see how they compare cost-wise, factoring in commuting costs, utilities and other expenses.
Many schools require freshmen living on-campus to purchase meal plans. These meal plans, while convenient, can be pricey and potentially wasteful if you choose the wrong one. You should determine how much each meal will cost you and if there are convenient off-campus options. Vegetarian students and students with dietary restrictions may have limited meal choices, in which case, a scaled-back plan that includes fewer than two meals per day could be a better option.
• Search for on-campus jobs and work-study positions, and make the most of networking opportunities. The Federal Work-Study Program, which provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allows students to earn money to help pay education expenses, while building their resumes. If you were awarded work-study, you should apply to specific roles as soon as possible to get a desirable position. Missed the application deadline for work-study? That's okay. Colleges and universities offer a wide range of on-campus jobs for students that include advantages like flexible hours that enable you to work around your class schedule. An on-campus job is a great way to get some work experience under your belt, meet other students and faculty, and earn some extra spending money. And don't overlook the abundance of networking opportunities before you. Explore organizations and clubs that you'd like to join, such as intramural sports, the school's newspaper, and fraternities and sororities. Don't be afraid to branch out and make new friends or try a new activity, as you never know what connections might emerge from doing so.
• Review courses and learn about the registration process. After you've selected your major, review the academic catalog and course requirements. Check to see if you can get credit for any AP courses you took in high school. If your AP credits transfer, they could translate into an entire semester (or more) of college credits, which in turn can allow you to graduate early if you'd like and save that entire semester (or more) in tuition costs. Before you register for classes, make sure you aren't signing up for courses that duplicate--and then cancel out--your AP credits. You should also research the schedule of classes and create an optimal class schedule. Talk to your advisor and other students in your major to get their input. You will want to figure out your college's registration process now so that you're prepared to register early, before classes start filling up.
• Attend new student orientation. Most schools offer a new student orientation during the summer. This is a good opportunity to familiarize yourself with the campus before classes start and to meet with faculty, professors and other incoming freshmen. While you're there, learn about required coursework, parking permits, your student email and ID number, meal plans and on-campus housing. Check out your school's social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to see what other students are saying.
• Submit the FAFSA. The U.S. Department of Education provides more than $150 billion in grants, loans and work-study funds each year, but you have to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to see if you can get any of that money. Even if you don't think you will qualify for federal aid, you should still fill out the FAFSA. Many private colleges provide financial aid to families that don't qualify for federal aid, but they will use the FAFSA to determine eligibility. And some private financial aid providers--like scholarships--may use your FAFSA information to determine whether you qualify for their aid. The application is free, available online, and can be completed anytime between January 1 and June 30--so you still have time!
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