Three years out of college, I have a five-figure savings account balance. My trick? I not only didn’t have to take out loans, but I didn’t pay for college at all! Going to college for free and not having the burden of student debt has allowed me to save money since the day I graduated from college.
I won’t lie: It feels really good. Graduating college without debt is no easy feat, though. It requires a lot of dedication, starting in high school. Here are my tips for how to go to college for free:
1. Get a Head Start on Applying
What if I told you I actually started the college application process the summer before my senior year in high school? Most seniors probably start writing their essays and getting recommendations a few months into the school year, since most college applications are due in January. Yes, it took away from my summer fun. But it paid off for me.
I applied through the National College Match by Questbridge. This program helps students from low-income families gain admission and full scholarships to the country’s most selective schools, and applications are due in September.
However, things didn't go exactly as I hoped. When results were announced, I learned that I didn’t receive a full scholarship from Questbridge. I was disappointed and a little upset that I would have to go through the whole process again in January to get into a top school.
But as life would have it, I received a phone call from the University of Pennsylvania’s admissions office soon after. A man happily told me that the admissions office was impressed with my application. And although I didn’t receive a Questbridge scholarship, the university would like to admit me and give me all the financial aid that I needed.
The university kept its word. Each year, I received over $50,000 in financial aid and never had to take out student loans. Of course, they looked at my need, my grades, and what I think was a very good essay before they took me in.
But applying early definitely gave me an advantage. It allowed me to get my application in front of the admissions officers before they were bombarded with thousands more.
The early application helped them pay more attention to my story and decide that I would be a good fit for the University of Pennsylvania.
You may be wondering, “What if my family isn’t low-income and I don’t qualify for Questbridge?” No worries! Plenty of colleges offer an early application process. U.S. News has a great list of colleges where applying early helps your chances of being accepted.
PrepScholar also has two lists of colleges where you can apply early through either early action or early decision. The only difference between the two is that early decision is binding. You can only apply to one college in early decision, and if you are accepted, you must attend.
There is no harm in applying to college early. It can only improve your chances of being accepted to your dream school. It may mean temporarily sacrificing some of your social life to get those essays in on time, but it will be worth it in the end.
2. Chase More Scholarships
You might have thought that I kicked my feet up and relaxed after receiving a full financial aid package from the University of Pennsylvania. That definitely wasn’t the case.
I knew that I'd still need to cover other school-related expenses, so I applied for local scholarships. I won one for $5,000 and another for $1,000. These came in handy when I had to buy a laptop and when I lived in more expensive dorm rooms throughout college.
The best way to find local scholarships is to ask your school’s guidance counselor. This person should be able to connect you with the right organizations. Student Scholarship Search has an excellent page that lists local scholarships by state. You can also apply to national scholarships, but in my opinion, it’s easier to land local scholarships, since there’s less competition.
Even when you think you’re all set, push yourself to gain even more resources. You never know when they’ll come in handy.
3. Earn More Money Through Part-Time Jobs
I didn’t stop at the scholarships. I also worked part-time jobs each year of college. Now that I had my tuition and all school-related expenses covered, I needed spending money for everything else.
Finding a job was easy. The University of Pennsylvania has an online student portal that lists both off-campus and on-campus jobs. My first job was as an administrative assistant in the business school. Other part-time jobs I held included making calls to alumni to get school donations and acting as a peer public speaking advisor.
I also landed internships during my summers: a communications internship with Comcast and a public relations internship with a medical center. Whether it’s on an exclusive job board or through the college’s career center, there are plenty of opportunities out there for college students to find work.
There you have it — that’s how I got into an Ivy League school and graduated debt-free. Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Definitely.