shaun-85When I was applying to college, I rarely worried, “Would I get in?”; the real question was, “How am I going to pay for it?” Luckily, most colleges are determined to make sure that all accepted students will be able to afford it through several avenues of financial aid. However, some forms of financial aid are better than others, and it is up to you to proactively pursue scholarships and grants so that you can leave college with as little debt as possible.

Financial aid is normally broken down into four categories: government/university grants (which are based on your family’s demonstrated need and do not need to be paid back), merit scholarships (which are based on academic achievement and do not need to be paid back), government/university loans (which are based on your family’s demonstrated need and DO need to be paid back), and work study (which allows you to hold an on-campus job to earn money).

Government grants and loans can be tricky. Though the FAFSA application asks a variety of questions to get a feel of how much your family can contribute, sometimes situation-specific circumstances aren’t taken fully into account and your family will still be expected to pay more than they can afford. This is why it is often necessary to apply for outside and merit-based scholarships to cover the rest of the costs. Furthermore, be wary of the type of loan the government or your university offers you. There are two types of loans: subsidized and unsubsidized, the former meaning that the government will pay the interest on your loan while you are in school, and the latter meaning that they won’t. Be very careful in accepting unsubsidized loans, because interest can add up very quickly.

That brings me to another point: students often don’t realize that they do not have to accept all parts of a financial aid package. For instance, if you like the $17,000 grant you’re receiving each semester but do not want to deal with a $3,000 unsubsidized loan, you can accept one and pay the other upfront to prevent paying excessive interest. In my case, I was given a $700 unsubsidized loan that I did not want, but instead of turning down the money I was able to add $700 onto my work study stipend. Be sure to keep in touch with your university’s financial aid office to alter your financial aid package to better fit your needs.

Lastly, read your financial aid package VERY CAREFULLY to see what all it includes. Oftentimes universities will not provide grants or loans for expenses such as travel, books and supplies, and personal needs, all of which can add up to be quite a bit of money. Be aware of all college expenses, not just tuition, room, and board, so an unexpected expense doesn’t catch you off guard.

The process is almost over…hang in there! Good luck!