As a competitive travel soccer player, I started thinking about college early on. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was already reaching out to coaches and going on campus visits.
I eventually chose Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois. I fell in love with the environment and the soccer program. Most importantly, Trinity offered an athletic scholarship as well as an academic one.
Now, as a senior on track to graduate one semester early, I’m reflecting on my experience of choosing a college while limiting student debt. I’ve realized that while I’ve done a lot of things right, there’s a lot I wish I’d known.
Here’s what I’ve learned, as well as the college advice I’d give to students who are preparing for college and/or entering college soon.
My college advice for incoming students:
1. Not all schools let you stack academic and athletic scholarships
When I started the recruiting process, I wasn’t familiar with the idea of “stacking scholarships.” Turns out, it is kind of a big deal — especially for student-athletes like myself, who have achieved both academic and athletic success. Stacking scholarships means that you can receive any amount of athletic scholarships in addition to academic scholarships and need-based money. In other words, more of one doesn’t mean less of another.
But not all schools allow scholarship stacking. I narrowed my college decision down to two schools that were recruiting me to play soccer: One stacked scholarships, while the other did not. I chose the school that offered more money by stacking scholarships that honored both my academic and athletic success.
My college advice: As you begin searching for the right college, consider each school’s policy of stacking scholarships, even if you are not a student-athlete. Some schools have policies that do not allow for the stacking of any scholarships, including merit-based aid, departmental scholarships and outside scholarships. If you receive outside scholarships, they might decrease institutional grant money. Find a school that will honor all of your scholarships.
2. Apply for scholarships through your school
In my junior year of college, I lost the federal grant money I had been receiving. To cover the difference, I applied for a one-time returning student scholarship through my school’s financial aid office.
My college advice: Ask your school’s financial aid office about the scholarship opportunities that may be available to you. Some are offered to first-time students, while others are for returning students. These are great opportunities because possible recipients are already narrowed down to students who plan on attending or are already attending the school.
3. AP classes can be helpful, but not always as helpful as you think
I took several AP classes in high school, and the credits I earned are helping me graduate college in less than four years (which will save me money in tuition). However, my school would not accept both of my two English AP credits for English courses. Instead, I was able to apply one AP credit to an English course, while the remaining one credit was considered an elective.
My college advice: AP classes are a great way to save time and money in college. But it’s possible that some of your AP classes won’t go towards a degree-specific college credit. Before enrolling in AP classes, consider the difficulty level of each course, as well as your proficiency in that subject. Be honest with yourself about whether the stress of a challenging AP course will be worth it, and about whether you’ll be able to maintain a strong high school GPA and achieve the required AP score in order to get college credit.
4. Plan out your classes ahead of time
I am graduating early because of the advice an upperclassman shared with me in my first few weeks of college. She was graduating a semester early and told me that I could do the same. She advised me to look at the course catalog and create a plan for each semester until graduation. I immediately made a spreadsheet with a detailed plan (and several alternative plans should something go awry) and shared it with my advisor.
My college advice: Some courses are not offered every semester or even every year. It is important that you talk with your advisor and refer to the course catalog right away. Make a detailed plan (and backup plans) so you can stay on track for graduation.
Make sure you take the courses you need when they are offered. General education courses may be offered more often than others. Prioritize courses that are specific to your major, especially if they are not offered each semester. Also, consider taking summer classes.
5. Talk to your advisor
I ran into issues with my plan to graduate early on several occasions, such as when the course catalog changed and when two courses overlapped. My advisor provided lots of guidance and offered course substitutions, which allowed me to stay on track to graduate early.
My college advice: If you run into an issue with your plan to graduate, talk to your advisor. Arrive at the meeting prepared with your own ideas and suggestions on how to solve the issue.
6. Networking is important
As the saying goes, “It’s not always what you know, but who you know.”
As an upperclassman planning to enter the workforce soon, I realize how important networking is. For instance, I got a job in marketing for a property maintenance company through a connection I made with a classmate — even though I didn’t know anything about marketing or property maintenance. However, my classmate told the owner that she was confident I would be a quick learner and a hard worker, so he hired me.
My college advice: Start making connections as soon as possible. Apply for internships and jobs in the field you are interested in. Volunteer at a variety of organizations off-campus and in your community. Attend workshops and seminars offered by your school. These are great ways to meet people, while also building your resume.
7. Find a paid internship that also counts as credit
Internships are amazing opportunities to get course credit, expand your knowledge and skills, and improve your employability. Paid internships that also count as credit offer double the benefits — one summer, I earned six credits while also earning a paycheck, which saved me time and money.
I am not exactly sure what kind of career I want to pursue after graduation, but my internships are helping me figure it out. My previous internship was in the insurance industry and my current internships are in marketing, neither of which I’ve studied in school. These opportunities are helping me determine what I am good at and what I might be interested in after graduation.
My college advice: If possible, find internships that are paid and count for credit. Look for opportunities that are outside of your comfort zone. You will learn skills to put on your resume that you wouldn’t learn in class. This is especially helpful if you are not sure what you want to do after graduation or you’re rethinking your career path.
8. Save money on textbooks
During my freshman year of college, I spent close to $300 on textbooks — a single textbook can be over $100. The good news is, there are ways to avoid paying that much. In the last three semesters, I have only spent $100 on textbooks in total.
My college advice: Before purchasing or renting textbooks through the campus bookstore, check your school’s library. They might have the book available for regular check-out or on reserve for hourly check-out. Many schools are part of Interlibrary Loan (ILL) programs. If you are in Illinois, check CARLI I-Share to find out if your school is one of the 91 members. These programs allow you to gain free access to materials your school might not own.
If you can’t find the books for free through the library, join college buying and selling Facebook groups where people sell textbooks that they no longer need for reduced prices. Renting textbooks from Amazon and Chegg is another good way to find textbooks at a low cost. Also, consider purchasing E-books.
9. Get an on-campus job
Even as an in-season student-athlete, I was able to maintain a job working at the college library— even if that meant only working three hours a week. This would not have been possible in a normal job setting, where one shift is generally longer than three hours. When the season was over, my hours were increased.
My college advice: Get an on-campus job, because it will likely be more flexible with your schedule. Also, on-campus jobs mean very little commuting time and they often work around your class and activity schedules.
10. Check Facebook and your school’s general news and information email or board
Finding a job that fits your college schedule can be challenging. Regular shifts don’t always work. Through my school’s marketplace email service, I found a job plastic wrapping food for a woman to resell. My friend found a job nannying.
Facebook groups and other online forums are great ways to find more than just jobs. When I moved off-campus, I bought several inexpensive household items through online groups. My friend found a really affordable bedroom to rent one summer when she needed to stay in the area for a job.
My college advice: Join mom and dad Facebook groups to find babysitting jobs. Check out your community Facebook page to find local job listings and other news. Your school likely has an email newsletter, posting board or virtual marketplace where people from the community can post odd jobs and other opportunities.
11. Living off campus can save you money, but you have to be strategic
Since room and board is one of the most expensive costs of college, I decided that moving off campus during my junior year was the best way for me to save money (living in a normal dorm, I would have been required to purchase a meal plan). But unfortunately, my school charges an $850 fine for every semester that you violate their housing policy, which is to remain on campus until you are a senior or 22 years old.
After the crunching numbers, I realized that moving off campus was still the cheaper option for me. I added up the costs of the fine, as well as my potential rent, utilities, commuting expenses, and $150/month for groceries, and then subtracted that from the cost of on-campus room and board. Even with the fine, living off campus was still thousands of dollars cheaper. Plus, since I was on track to graduate a semester early, I would only be violating the housing policy for one semester.
Of course, moving off campus doesn’t save you money if you can’t find affordable housing in your area or if you aren’t prepared to live on a tight budget. I created a budget for myself based on my income and stuck to it.
My college advice: When choosing a college, look at the area’s cost of living. Apartments and homes in some areas will be affordable and help you save money on room and board, while others will be far too expensive.
Make sure you are familiar with the school’s housing policy and what type of housing is actually available each year. Talk to current students, especially upperclassmen — you want to know what you are signing up for.
Budget. Do the math. Decide if living off campus will actually save you money. Take into account things like groceries, utilities, and how much it will cost to commute. Be realistic with yourself, but also be prepared to make some lifestyle changes. My roommates and I avoid running the heat and air if we can, which sometimes means we are a little uncomfortable. As athletes, we are able to take showers in our locker room. I also meal-plan and I pack lunches to take to campus.