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How to Put Yourself Through College: Advice From a Collegiette Who Did It

It’s finally time to start college! After four years of hard work, you have an acceptance letter that’s made it all worth it. The next question is: how are you going to pay for it? For many pre-collegiettes about to start school, the cost of college can be tough to handle. If you’ll be putting yourself through school, it can feel even more stressful and uncertain. To help you get started, Her Campus talked to one fabulous collegiette who is currently paying for college on her own. She told Her Campus how she made a financial plan, how she balances her schedule, and how she handles it all without sacrificing a great college experience.


Sedona’s Story

Sedona Murphy is a junior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Growing up in South Boston with her twin brother and mother, she experienced for herself the volatile Boston public school system and was in and out of several schools. With the help of her grandmother, she was fortunate to attend a private middle school, and eventually, she and her family moved to the suburbs for a better school district. Sedona’s mother worked 60 hours a week to pay for the move and to keep their house.

Sedona attributes her good education to her mother’s work ethic and strength. “The school district was amazing and it offered me the chance to pursue higher education because I knew I was getting the foundation I needed for college,” she says. “I also knew that I would have to pay for college largely on my own, but higher education is absolutely worth it. I want to be a doctor and my mom gave me what I needed to get on that track. I just had to figure the rest out.” 

Save Early, Save Often

If you plan on paying for all or part of your education yourself, you might have begun working during high school. Sedona says this was an important part of her college savings plan. “To pay for college, I started saving up all throughout high school,” she explains. “Even entering high school, I had amassed a modest savings. I understood the value of saving money through watching my mother work so hard.”

Saving money is important, and it’s never too early to start. Small amounts of money can turn into serious cash with smart saving, so take that into consideration when you’re making your plan for college.

“It was and will always be a balancing act,” Sedona says. During high school, she worked 25 hours a week at an ice cream store, played sports, took a demanding course load, and still found time to hang out with her friends to keep her sanity. “Finding time to spend with friends is absolutely crucial because it is easy to let the stress of the future consume you,” Sedona advises. “Just always remember to enjoy what is happening in the now.” By the time she graduated high school, Sedona had saved enough money to pay for her first year of college.


Get Financial Aid

As the cost of college increases, loans are becoming more commonplace for students. A Fidelity survey found that graduates in the class of 2013 graduated with an average of $35,200 in total debt. Unfortunately for many collegiettes, there’s just no other way to pay for college than with loans and aid. With that in mind, we laid out some financial aid options you’ll want to explore if you’re looking to put yourself through school.

The first step in applying for any kind of federal financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA will allow your college to see your amount of financial need, and college financial aid offices may use this information when calculating their own aid packages for you in addition to any federal grants, loans, or work-study funds you receive. Each college or university sets its own deadlines for FAFSA completion, so the sooner you can fill it out, the better! The amount of aid you receive will be based on your financial need: the difference between your cost of attendance to any one university and the amount of money that your family can expect to contribute based on their financial stability.

Federal Loans

One option to help you pay for college is taking out a federal loan. With a federal loan, you borrow money from the government to pay for school, and you pay the money back with interest in several installments after you graduate.

Once she started at Haverford, Sedona had to make a plan to keep her finances in check. She receives a large grant from her college each year and has a small Stafford Loan (a form of federal financial aid; typically the most affordable kind of student loan) for some expenses. Stafford Loans can be used to cover those expenses that tie into a student’s cost of attendance, such as tuition, room and board, books, and other school-related expenses. For more on eligibility and how to apply for one, visit the Stafford Loan website. In addition to those funds from her college and her loan, Sedona also works three jobs: at the student-run cafe, in the athletic training room, and as a Sunday school teacher for a Quaker church.

Sedona is fortunate, too, that her college’s financial aid department fits well with her financial plan, a very important factor to take into consideration when looking at potential schools. “Haverford gives me great financial aid, and the best part is that their aid is in grants that I won’t have to pay back in the future,” she says. “That was a huge deciding factor about me choosing my college because I knew I didn’t want to be in much debt if I wanted to go to medical school.”

To explore other federal loan options, Student Loan Network has a breakdown of each type of federal loan and how it works. While the Stafford Loan works for Sedona, another option may be a better fit for you and your family.

Private Loans

For those who need just a little bit of extra help in paying for school, you may find that you don’t demonstrate enough financial need to qualify for federal loans. It’s also possible that the federal aid you did receive based on your FAFSA will not be enough to cover all of your college costs. In this case, a private loan may be the answer. Private loans can be used to cover tuition, as well as housing fees, books, supplies, and transportation. This loan calculator will help you find lenders that already work with the college you’ll be attending, so you don’t need to do any unnecessary research on lenders that may not work with your school.

No matter which kind of loans you end up using, pay them off as you go or as soon as you are able to in order to avoid future debt. “I’m hoping to pay off these loans in a year or two after graduation, before entering medical school,” Sedona says. “I really encourage anyone to try to pay as much of your tuition upfront as possible, because being in debt or paying off loans with interest can be crippling after college. I know some [people] may not be as fortunate as I am, so I would say making a plan is the best way. Set weekly or monthly goals towards paying off loans, and do your best to stick with them.”

Merit Scholarships

In addition to need-based aid, there is also merit-based aid. Some universities award academic scholarships for excellent performance. Merit-based aid policies vary from university to university. For some schools, this money will be offered based on your performance in high school and you’ll receive it upon your acceptance to the university. For others, you will need to apply or audition for it.

As you apply for different schools, be sure to ask the financial aid department about any merit-based scholarships that you may qualify for and how to obtain them. If you receive merit-based financial aid, pay close attention to the terms as well. Some scholarships are one-time amounts, while others are broken up over a series of semesters. Ask questions if you’re unsure how your aid will be dispersed so that you don’t accidentally include money in your financial plan that isn’t there.


Consider Your College

If you’re still deciding where you’ll be applying for school, make a list of attributes that are really important for you to have in your education and which things are extras. If a four-year college isn’t necessary for your chosen major, you might want to consider going to community college so you can save money and graduate sooner. Also, consider whether you must live on campus or if you can get by being a commuter student. Cooking meals for yourself to save money on the campus meal plan may be another way to cut costs, if that’s applicable to you. While some universities require freshmen to live on campus and to have a meal plan, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and it could save you a lot of money down the road. Nailing down your necessities and separating them from what you want will keep you focused and make your financial goals more attainable.

Create a Schedule

Another piece of the payment puzzle is time management. When it comes to managing her work schedule, her studies, and time with her friends, Sedona admits that it’s a struggle, but it’s manageable. “I work three jobs during the school year with a full course load, and I’m on the varsity field hockey and track teams,” says Sedona. “I don’t want my college experience to be defined by money. I work jobs that allow me to do homework during them, so I don’t fall behind in classwork. Honestly, I may not be getting the most pristine grades, but I’m doing okay and I’m enjoying my time here.”

Balance will be different for every collegiette, but it is absolutely necessary! Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and making time for exercise. A full schedule is fine, but if you’re working so much that you have no time to study or you’re sleeping through your classes, that’s a problem. Budget your time so that school comes first. Sacrifices will happen, but keep your eye on the prize. You’re in school to get an awesome education, so do your best to maintain your focus to achieve your degree!

Talk to your school’s career services department to see if there are jobs on campus that have some downtime built in for your studies. Check out the library, the front desk of a residence hall, or the campus bookstore to see what their schedules are like and how they fit with everything else you have to do—with those kinds of jobs, it’ll be easy to do homework behind the desk.

Despite all of the work, Sedona knows that paying for school is a necessary step in moving toward her future. “I think my schedule is something I’ve just gotten used to over the years,” she says. “I know it’s something I need to do, so I make the most of it. I do get stressed out a lot, but who doesn’t in college? The ends justify the means, so it’s worth the hard work.”

For other collegiettes about to embark on this journey, Sedona has a few pieces of advice:

  • “Make a plan and stay focused,” Sedona says. Sit down with your parents, a family friend, or even a financial adviser to map out the best option for you financially. Mint is a free resource that can help you manage your money efficiently. Mint allows you to see all of your accounts in one place, so you never forget about your loan payment, your credit card bill, or how much money you have in your checking account. You can also use it to create a budget. Unlike other budget tools, Mint uses your past spending habits to create a budget that’s realistic for your lifestyle. If your historic spending doesn’t match up with how you want to be allocating your money, customize it to an amount you’re more comfortable with.
  • “Never be afraid to ask for help,” Sedona says. “My friends had a bake sale for me one semester to help me pay some bills.” While you may be embarrassed to let people know you need financial help, whether that’s your friends or someone else you trust, they are probably more than happy to jump in. If you’re spending more than you’d like on your daily Starbucks habit, for example, you could ask a close friend to keep you accountable. Allowing her to ask how much you spent on coffee each day will be a way to track your spending in a way that makes you comfortable that is still private, and it will help that you’re not doing it alone.

Putting yourself through college may sound like a never-ending to-do list, but we hope that Sedona’s story has shown you that it can be done with a little ingenuity, some smart planning, and plenty of heart.


Do you have any advice for collegiettes putting themselves through school? Share them with us in the comments!

Rachel is a recent graduate of Butler University where she received her B.S. in Arts Administration. She loves being part of the Her Campus team! During college she had a variety of internships working at organizations like the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the online fashion and beauty magazine College Fashion. Currently, she serves as a Campus Ambassador for Button Me Up, a handmade jewelry company operating out of San Diego. She also works as a contributing writer for Levo Leauge. Rachel is on an endless search for the next book to read, the next latte to drink, and the next cupcake to eat. Any suggestions, please send them along! Follow her on Twitter @rkwendte.
Quinn Cohane is the Product Manager at Her Campus. She develops new features for Her Campus's web properties, including HerCampus.com, HerCampusMedia.com, HerConference.com, and CollegeFashionWeek.com, from initial conception to final installation. She collaborates with the Client Services team to implement custom landing pages, content hubs and sponsored content for client campaigns. Quinn also works closely with the Chapter Development team, training new team members on using Her Campus's content management system and leading the onboarding of new Campus Correspondents, national writers and bloggers, and national interns. Additionally, she oversees technical support for Her Campus and the uploading of national content. Quinn first joined the Her Campus team as a remote intern in February 2010; her past roles include Production Associate, Digital Media Manager, Chapter Advisor, and Study Abroad blogger during her semester in Copenhagen, Denmark. She graduated Cum Laude from Bowdoin College in 2013 as an English major and computer science minor. A native of Scarsdale, New York, Quinn enjoys attending theater and dance performances, traveling the world, reading, the beach, and apple crumb pie. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @quinncohane.