The following article is written by our partner in personal finance, Adam Carroll.

The First Five Things To Do When Pursuing Higher Education

As you begin to navigate the college process, it can feel like you’re running wildly downhill. Juniors and Seniors in high school will tell you that time flies by as you visit schools, submit applications, look for scholarships, and try to find the best college fit at the best price.

Here are the things you should do first as you think about pursuing higher education:

  1. Have a candid conversation with your parents about college funding. Too many students are left in the dark about how much their family has saved for their education. Instead of getting blindsided well into the process, have a very open and candid conversation with your parents about how much has been saved for school, what amount you’ll be expected to contribute, and how student loans will factor into your college funding. Choosing a school shouldn’t be all about the dollars and cents, but cost absolutely should factor into your decision making. Better for everyone to be on the same page, right from the start. Use our family discussion guide to help get this conversation started. 
  2. Build a list of schools you may be interested in. If you’re uncertain about which school you’re most drawn to, do some background research on the net price (what it would actually cost you to attend that school), size of the campus, the city in which the school is located, number of students, and majors that they are well known for. By building a spreadsheet of these schools, noting cost of attendance, net price, and making notes as you visit the school, you’ll be able to compare them with one another more easily. Try our College Search & Cost Comparison to compare the actual cost of attending different colleges. To obtain a net price estimate, visit the school's website and search for "net price calculator."
  3. Invest time in your GPA and getting the best score possible on the ACT. Nothing impacts your financial aid packages like a high grade point average (GPA) and high test scores. Consider taking an Scholastic Assessment Test (ACT) prep class prior to taking the official ACT to raise your score. A higher score generally means more scholarships available to you through the college or other awarding agencies. even lists the awards to apply for if you have a 21-25, 26-30, or 30+. Higher scores generally mean higher awards, thereby reducing the amount borrowed!
  4. Apply for scholarships like it’s your day job. It’s the single highest paying part-time job you’ll ever have as a student. Whether or not you know where you’ll go for sure, applying for scholarships is a great way to minimize the overall cost of attendance. In additional to whatever institutional aid you get from your school, having scholarships from your high school, community, and other sources will be a huge way to cut the cost of college. Your goal in applying is to diminish the overall amount you’ll have in student loans after graduation. Learn to love the process. You should keep it up all the way through school. Use our nifty Scholarship Search tool to find a scholarship that works for you!
  5. When choosing your major, do your utmost to graduate in 4 years. According to an article from Penn State, nearly 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided." That being said, choosing a major early enough that you can finish it within four years has a profound impact on the overall amount borrowed for school. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, it’s taking students closer to 5.1 years on average to finish a bachelor’s degree. That extra year could potentially add tens of thousands to your final student loan bill. Better (and cheaper) to knock that degree down in four!

The biggest key to a successful college search, application, and funding process is to enlist others to help you. This is a very big decision - and having people around you to bounce ideas off of, help with research, and have your back is critical. Just remember - you’ve got this! If you'd like to take a guided journey of the path from high school to college, sign up to be a registered user on this site and we'll walk you through what you need to accomplish step by step along the way. Or, if you'd like to talk to a college planner, contact us here and we'll connect you with someone who can help (free of charge)!

Adam Carroll

Personal Finance Expert and Author