Amanda Mooney is a 2014 graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit, MI with a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Broadcast Journalism with a psychology minor. She has freelanced for Detroit alternative press publication Metro Times, and is currently involved as the film writer and part-time radio host for the independent Detroit-based Controlled Chaos Magazine. In her spare time she is an aspiring screenwriter and novelist, having finished one feature-length screenplay to date with two novels in the works.
As an incoming freshman, the whole idea college can be as daunting as it is exciting. You’ll definitely have the time of your life, but in order for the whole experience to work in your favor, you have to know all the technical details. Everyone’s college experience differs in some way, but when it comes down to going through the motions of administration, financial aid, and all that other fun stuff, it’s all really the same. And who better to give you advice than someone who’s already been through it firsthand? So, here we go.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO STUDY?
So let’s start with the reason you’re even going to college, to learn! But what do you want to study? A good question, but one you should answer as soon as you possibly can, like right after freshman year to be exact. No pressure, but it will save you a TON of headaches and TON of dollars in the long run. I personally changed my major four times before settling on the one that’s printed on my degree, and I was lucky enough that all the classes I already spent time and money on while pursuing the previous three majors counted towards the one I graduated with, because they were all required for a Bachelors of Fine Arts. Now if you decide in the beginning that you want to be a neurosurgeon then suddenly realize in junior year that teaching high school English is your true passion, you’re too late.
Main idea: You should make a final decision and officially declare a major by the end of your sophomore year. Your first two years are usually dedicated mostly to general studies, like math and history. As such if you go in undecided, use these first two years to feel out what you what interests you and what major you want to declare, since you’ll be exposed to many different subjects all at once like you were in high school. The reason I say all of this is because junior year is really the point of no return. You’re done with general studies and begin the home stretch towards graduation, so those last two years are usually when all of your major classes kick in.
REGISTERING FOR CLASSES
Thankfully colleges know that you aren’t predisposed with the knowledge of what’s required of you to achieve a degree, so they have a handy group of advisors on staff, for both general studies and in each major department. However the one thing they DO expect you to know is what kind of information you’re looking for when you make an appointment. For instance if you see a general advisor about pursuing a journalism degree, they won’t be able to help you, and will direct you to the journalism department where you’ll have to make yet another appointment.
Main Idea: Know what you’re looking for and contact the right advisor for the job. Going into college you should always start off with a general advisor. They’ll get you set up with your classes for your first two years of general studies. Then when you decide what major you want to declare, go see an advisor in that department and they’ll walk you through the classes you need to get that degree.
PAYING FOR COLLEGE
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships and grants should definitely be your first goal, and your window of opportunity for the most beneficial kinds is usually during high school either for super academic, athletic, and sometimes other extra-curricular performance. For example I got a $300 fine arts grant from my city for being involved in theater, it wasn’t much but every bit counts. Or you could be super cool and get the coveted full-ride scholarship which pays for you to live on campus as well as all of your classes for ALL FOUR YEARS.
The catch: YOU have to seek out these opportunities. College websites usually have a scholarship and grant page listing those currently being offered and what you have to do to get them, or you could just call student services and ask. Keep colleges updated on your extra-curricular involvement, display your talents. Also keep your grades up, and definitely go as hard as you can on the SAT/ACT. It may seem pointless when you take it, but colleges DO demand and look at your scores when you apply for admission, and will reward you.
Basically, any money you DON’T have to pay back when you graduate is ideal, and get as much of it as you can.
If you go the financial aid route, your college will require you to complete a FAFSA form. This is the US Government’s student financial aid program that works with the country’s universities, and will determine what kind of aid you qualify for based on your household income and other conditions, and you have to fill it out every term. Sometimes you can be awarded grants through FAFSA depending on your level of need, but in most cases you what are called Direct Stafford loans that come in two flavors: subsidized and unsubsidized. Subsidized loans are slightly better since the government covers the interest rate while you’re in school and six months after you graduate, though you can only get them if you display “financial need.” Unsubsidized loans are the complete opposite, you’re responsible for the interest rates at all times and are available to anyone of any income. You don’t choose which kind you get, it all depends on how “needy” you look to the government on paper, which can be infuriatingly subjective considering that when reviewing the FAFSA they do not take into account other government-issued expenses like bills and such that you and your family have to pay, so you may look filthy rich on paper. However you don’t have to accept any of them if you don’t want to.
You can also apply for private third party loans through lenders like Firstmark, Wells Fargo, and Sallie Mae just to name a few. However the result is all the same, you will have to pay it all back six months after you graduate, and that can end up hurting pretty bad if you don’t find a good job with your degree as soon as possible. For example I currently have about $47,000 worth of loans currently in repayment, and may take me an average of 20 years to pay back in full.
Main idea: Try and only turn to loans as a last resort. Again go as hard as you can on scoring scholarships and grants, saving up yourself, or just any money that you don’t have to pay back. If there’s anything I want you to take away from this article, it is this. I cannot stress enough the importance of trying not to rely solely on loans as your principle way of paying for school, because they WILL come back to bite you.
TRICKING THE SYSTEM
If you do have to resort to big loans, the smartest strategy I have to soften the blow of college costs a little but ultimately significant bit is to start off at a community college and transfer to a bigger university to complete your degree, it saved me thousands in the long run. Community colleges offer the same quality education as a four-year university, but most importantly do not come with the awful and scary four-year university price tag. I completed my freshman and sophomore years at Henry Ford Community College, and then transferred to Wayne State University for my last two years to finish out my degree. I saved about $10,000 doing it this way than if I did all four years at Wayne State. That’s $10,000 less that I have to pay back now. Believe me, it helps.
LIVE AT HOME
I get it. You’re becoming a young adult and itch for the freedom of finally being on your own is super strong, but unless you get a full-ride scholarship or have wealthy and extremely generous parents, it’s best to live at home and commute while you’re in school if possible. Campus dorm prices are usually outrageous and the expenses of leasing an apartment or renting or owning a house can drain you very quickly, especially if you’ll eventually have loans to pay back. College life means the broke life. Plus living at home actually makes you focus more on your studies. Not only does it serve as encouragement to do the best you can so you can land a good job and move out, but you also don’t have all the distractions that come with campus life or living on your own. College parties and stuff are super fun, but you’ll benefit from not having the constant temptation all around you to slack off and flunk out.
However I understand that for some people, living at home may not be an option for whatever reason. In that case, still avoid living on campus unless you have a scholarship because it’s super expensive out of pocket, and instead get roommates to help foot the bills.
So that’s probably the most important information I have to impart. I hope what I’ve learned from going through it all already helps you in some way to make your own college experience the best it can be.