Updated on 11.03.14

Year-by-Year College Financial Checklist

College student studying

Here’s a semester-by-semester glance at money moves to make and milestones not to miss. Photo: Francisco Osorio

While there are steps you can take to ease your student loan debt at any age, you may actually have the most control over it while you’re still in school. Here’s a semester-by-semester glance at money moves you should make and milestones not to miss.

Freshman Year

First Semester

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as possible to secure funds. This will tell you what types of federal aid you qualify for, including federal loans, grants, and work study.

If you qualify for work-study, apply for these types of jobs on campus. If you do not qualify for work-study, apply for regular jobs on campus or nearby.

Apply for as many scholarships as you can. Find scholarships offered by your school, on scholarship search engines, and with any groups or affiliations you belong to.

Take some time to understand the financial ramifications of college, if you haven’t already. How much will college cost you? What will you owe when you leave? How are you going to pay for it? Gain an understanding of the different types of loans and how they work.

Now that you have an understanding of college and finances, meet with a financial adviser at your school. Make a financial game plan for your four years of college. Ask about grants, scholarships, and other types of aid. Ask any questions you have and see what financial resources they offer.

Brainstorm ideas on how you can help alleviate the cost of college. Can you work while you’re in school? Take an extra class each semester to graduate early? Find extra roommates to split the cost of living?

Create a budget based off what you have saved, your income, and your financial aid. Consider making room to pay the interest on any student loans you’ve taken out. Keep track of what you’re spending, and live cheaply.

Learn what services and perks are offered through your school. You may not even realize all of the things you can take advantage of at school that help alleviate costs – free access to the gym, free food around campus, affordable health care, free access to computers and printers, tutoring to help you pass classes, free transportation around campus, discounts to local stores, and more. Discover these perks early so you can utilize them throughout your college career.

Meet with an academic adviser to plan out what courses you’ll take. You’ll want to meet with your adviser regularly to be certain you’re taking classes that count toward your degree. Plus, an adviser can help you determine which classes should be taken each semester to ensure you don’t miss one.

Get organized. Now that you’re on your own, this could be the first time you’re paying bills and totally in charge of what you’re doing — that can be exhilarating, but it can be overwhelming, too. Create a financial calendar with important dates: when your bills are due, when any tuition is due, when you need to file FAFSA, scholarship application deadlines, and any other important financial deadlines you have.

Formulate good habits now. For many college students, it’s the first time you won’t have a curfew, parents telling you what to do, and teachers asking you for assignments or taking attendance. You can still have fun without blowing off your school work. Doing well in college is going to drastically affect your finances, maybe for the rest of your life. For one, you need to pass your classes. If not, you’re wasting thousands of dollars plus your time. Getting good grades can lead to internships and scholarships, and help with your job search.

Avoid credit card temptations if you don’t think you can handle it. If you can handle making small purchases on a credit card and then paying off the balance in full every month, go for it. It’s a good way to build credit. However, don’t charge what you can’t afford to pay off, or else you’ll end up with credit card debt alongside your student loan obligations.

Second Semester

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as possible after January 1 to secure funds for sophomore year. This will determine what types of federal aid you qualify for, including federal loans, grants, and work study.

Get active on campus. Join professional groups that can help you with future job searches.

Does your work-study job stop over the summer? If so, start thinking about what you’re going to do for income over summer break.

If you’re selling back any textbooks you purchased, do so early — before the bookstore reaches its quota or you misplace the books.

Consider taking classes over summer break to possibly graduate early. If you’re headed home for the summer, consider taking classes at a community college, which could be cheaper than your current school. Check to make sure the credits will transfer, though.

If you’re leaving the dorms after freshman year, start researching housing options for next year that are the most affordable for you. Find roommates you trust to help you split costs. Now is also a good time to scour Craigslist and Freecycle for hand-me-down furniture and housewares. There is typically more available in May, when everyone is moving out, than in the fall.

Sophomore Year

First Semester

If you qualify for work-study, apply for these types of jobs on campus. If you do not qualify for work-study, apply for regular jobs on campus or nearby.

Apply for as many scholarships as you can. Find scholarships offered by your school, on scholarship search engines, and with any groups of affiliations you belong to.

Since it’s a new year, redo your monthly budget. Again, make room for paying the interest on any student loans you have if possible.

Look into becoming an RA, or resident assistant. Many times, an RA receives free room and board in exchange for living in a dorm and performing various duties there.

Meet with an academic adviser to plan out what courses you’ll take. You’ll want to meet with your adviser regularly to be certain you’re taking classes that count toward your degree. Plus, an adviser can help you determine which classes should be taken each semester to ensure you don’t miss any requirements.

Second Semester

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as possible after January 1 to secure funds for junior year. This will determine what types of federal aid you qualify for, including federal loans, grants, and work study.

Consider taking classes over summer break to possibly graduate early.

Does your work-study job end for the summer? If so, start thinking about what you’re going to do for income over summer break.

If you’re selling back any textbooks you purchased, do so early.

Start thinking about internships you’d be interested in. If you’re able to start applying now, go for it.

Familiarize yourself with the career services offered at your college. They may offer internship fairs, job fairs, resume help, mock interviews, and more.

If you haven’t yet, now’s the time to write your first real resume. Look for examples and templates to follow online, or consult with your school’s career services office, which might offer resume writing assistance. Use what you’ve written to create a LinkedIn profile if you haven’t already, and start connecting with peers. Remember that LinkedIn isn’t Facebook — be yourself, but be the most professional version of yourself.

If you’ll be living off-campus next year, start researching housing options for next year that are the most affordable for you. Find roommates you trust to help you split costs. Now is also a good time to scour Craigslist and Freecycle for hand-me-down furniture and housewares. There is typically more available in May, when everyone is moving out, than in the fall.


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Junior Year

First Semester

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as possible to secure funds. This will tell you what types of federal aid you qualify for including federal loans, grants, and work study.

If you qualify for work-study, apply for these types of jobs on campus (or pick up where you left off last semester). If you do not qualify for work-study, apply for regular jobs on campus or nearby.

Start applying for internships to gain job experience. Thirty-seven percent of students who complete internships get job offers afterward. Even if you don’t get offered a position, you’ll have some real professional experience and a reference on your resume.

Meet with an academic adviser to be sure that you’re on track for graduation.

Apply for as many scholarships as you can. Find scholarships offered by your school, on scholarship search engines, and with any group affiliations you belong to.

Since it’s a new year, redo your monthly budget. Again, make room for paying the interest on any student loans you have if possible.

Second Semester

Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as possible after January 1 to secure funds for senior year. This will determine what types of federal aid you qualify for, including federal loans, grants, and work study.

If you haven’t found an internship yet, consider reaching out to specific companies where you’d like to intern. Even if there’s nothing available, pitch yourself and you may just create your own opportunity.

Update your resume and LinkedIn profile.

Consider taking classes over summer break to alleviate your course load for senior year.

Does your work-study job end over the summer? If so, start thinking about what you’re going to do for income over summer break. If you’ll be working an unpaid internship, don’t worry: They’re usually fairly flexible and often part-time, so you should be able to work part-time on the side to earn some money.

If you’re selling back any textbooks you purchased, do so early.

Senior Year

First Semester

Find out what is required to graduate. Do you need to apply for graduation? Double check that you’re on track to graduate and not missing any classes on your transcript.

If you qualify for work-study, apply for these types of jobs on campus. If you do not qualify for work-study, apply for regular jobs on campus or nearby.

Make an appointment with your financial aid department to go over what you’re going to owe when you leave college. You’ll also want to learn what options are available for your loans – such as deferment, loan forgiveness, and more.

Since it’s a new year, redo your monthly budget. Again, make room for paying the interest on any student loans you have if you can. If possible, you may want to start an emergency fund in case you can’t find a job after graduation.

Make your post-grad plans. Make a plan for finding a job, and think about a Plan B in case you can’t find one right away.

Update your resume. Include work experience, internship experience, any volunteer work, skills, and applicable classes. If your college offers resume help on campus, take advantage of this. If not, you can ask professors or an adviser for feedback.

Create a portfolio highlighting your work if applicable. Create a simple, free website (using WordPress or another free site builder) to host examples of or links to your best work.

Formulate your “elevator speech.” You never know when you’re going to meet someone that could be your “in” for a position. Think of a 30-second- or minute-long explanation of what makes you a qualified candidate. Get business cards made with any portfolio information you have.

Start applying for jobs. Visit company websites to explore open positions, look on job search engines (e.g., Indeed, Glassdoor, Monster, and CareerBuilder), search for jobs on LinkedIn, search job boards on professional organization and industry websites, and visit the career services office at your school.

Second Semester

Complete your loan exit counseling. This is a brief course explaining how much you owe on your student loans and the stipulations of your payments.

Meet with your financial aid counselor if you have any additional questions on paying back your student loans. Explore options for paying off your loans. Do you have a grace period, a time when you don’t have to make payments to your lender? What will your minimum payment be after your grace period ends? If you have a job, but are going to be making less than what you thought, consider applying for an income-based repayment plan. If you haven’t found a job yet, learn what your options are if you still don’t have a job after your grace period (e.g., see if you can you apply for an unemployment deferment).

If you’re selling back any textbooks you purchased, do so early. Sell your books online, and put it toward any debt you have.

Attend job fairs if you haven’t found a job yet. Chances are your college offers career fairs, especially in the spring, but you can also find job fairs in the community.

Join professional organizations. Many industry organizations offer a student rate, and you’ll have access to membership perks for one year. These can include invitations to networking events, industry contacts, and access to job boards, which can help you land a job in your field.

If you haven’t found a job, attend networking events. Find networking events with professional organizations in your desired field. For example, if you’re interested in journalism, look into groups such as Society of Professional Journalists or Media Bistro.

If you have a large amount of student loan debt you’re not sure how to deal with, start exploring one of the student loan forgiveness options we went into detail with in our series – joining the military, finding a job that offers loan forgiveness, volunteering, or moving somewhere that helps alleviate your loans.

Finalize plans for your post-college life. Where will you be living? Of course, much of it will hinge on whether and where you’ve found a job. Will you be moving back home while you get on your feet? Start saving up a deposit for when you’re ready to rent on your own. If you’re moving to a new city after graduation, either to start a job or look for one, find classmates in the same situation who might want to share an apartment. Good luck!

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