Starting college can be both exciting and scary. Not only are you moving away from home for the first time, but you’re also responsible for yourself in a whole new way.
While making friends and enjoying yourself are certainly top priorities, let’s focus for the moment on the academic and financial sides of your first-year experience.
By taking these five steps to explore majors, learn about careers and manage your money, you can set the stage for a successful experience at college:
1. Meet with your advisor to discuss course requirements
2. Learn about careers at career services
3. Check in with your student loan contracts
4. Design a realistic budget
5. Look for ways to make money on the side
As a freshman, you’ll have an assigned advisor who you can meet with to discuss course requirements and learn about majors. Your advisor is an invaluable source of guidance and advice, so make sure to meet with yours early in the year.
“Students should meet with their advisor as soon as possible,” said Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of test preparation company Prep Expert. “It’s important to establish that relationship and rapport early on.”
In your first year, you might be overwhelmed by the number of course options or confused about requirements. Your advisor can help you understand your choices and design an optimal schedule.
They can also discuss majors with you so that you have a clear sense of the prerequisites you’d need for your chosen field of study.
“If a student is unsure of what major to declare, then they should come to their advisor with potential major options and look over the academic paths to fulfill them,” Patel said, adding that such a conversation can give you an idea of “how much commitment certain majors require class-wise, as well as any potential course overlaps.”
By meeting with your advisor early on, you’ll learn how to craft a course of study that matches your goals.
While your advisor is a great resource for learning about majors and course requirements, your career services office can help you learn about career options, salaries, ways to hone your interview skills and how to write a strong resume, among other things.
Working with your school’s career office can also help you make sure your coursework matches up with your professional goals.
“Know the skills needed for your future career, and align your coursework to those skills,” suggested Jim Anderson, who runs the college planning site Making College Worth It. “[Your courses and internships] will teach you skills that will transfer from job to job.”
Although you might not have a career in mind yet as a freshman, it’s useful to start learning about your options. After all, you’re investing a good deal of money in your degree, so you want to secure a good return on that investment in the form of a well-paying and fulfilling career.
Although your student loans likely have a grace period, it’s never too early to track your student debt. In particular, understanding how much you borrowed and what your repayment terms are will help you later on down the road.
If you borrowed too much, return the leftover money before it starts accruing interest. And if you can swing small monthly payments, consider starting repayment of your loans right away, before your balance grows.
“If you have student loans, don’t ignore them until you graduate,” said Joe DePaulo, CEO and co-founder of College Ave Student Loans. “You can start paying off student loans right away, and you should pay what you can as soon as you can.”
Use our student loan payment calculator to see how making small monthly payments could save you interest over the years. Even if you can’t pay yet, you can learn how your debt works so you’re not caught unaware after you graduate.
“Whether you make payments during school or not, make sure you’re keeping track of what your total monthly student loan payment will be when you graduate,” DePaulo said. “Knowing that will help you plan ahead and can help you avoid over-borrowing.”
Now that you’re living on your own, it’s up to you to manage your money. You don’t want to end up broke before the end of the semester, nor do you want to waste student loan money on non-essentials. So it’s crucial to come up with a budget and stick to it.
“One way to ace freshman year is to get your finances in good shape,” said DePaulo. “First, make a budget. According to College Board, ‘other expenses’ at school – not including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies – can cost $2,120 a year on average [at a public four-year college]. Make a plan on how you will cover the extra expenses, like campus activities and dining out.”
An expense-tracking app such as Mint or YNAB can help you record your spending. Such tools can also assist in setting goals for major spending categories, such as food and social events.
DePaulo suggested looking for ways to save money on books and other materials. “The average books and supplies can cost $1,240 a year [for four years of college],” he said. “Look for ways to cut costs, such as borrowing, renting or buying used textbooks for the upcoming semester.”
By keeping track of your spending, you’ll feel in control of your money, rather than it controlling you.
Although you’re probably busy with schoolwork and extracurriculars, you might search for ways to make extra money as a freshman. You could find a part-time job or work a side hustle to bring in some income.
Companies such as Uber and TaskRabbit can be great for college students, as they let you set your own hours. You might also find a flexible online job that works with your busy schedule.
If you’re drawn to entrepreneurship, meanwhile, you could look for ways to start your own side hustle or online business. Whatever you choose, rest assured that there are a number of ways to make money as a freshman.
Starting your freshman year of college off on the right foot
As you launch your college studies, remember that you don’t have to figure everything out on your own. Meet with your advisor, connect with career services and make the most of other on-campus services, like tutoring or the health and wellness center.
At the same time, keep in mind that it’s not too early to start paying back your student loans or sticking to a budget. By taking control of your finances early on, you can carry these money habits with you throughout all four years of college.