Little known fact about me that may become less known now that I have decided to share it--I received mostly grants from a school that met 100% financial need, but did not offer merit aid. Hmm...that may be a little confusing.

What it basically means is that my family was poor and the college I went to was great for a student like me because it gave money based on my family's economic situation. I didn't score high enough on my SATs to be awarded merit-scholarships at my state school.

I open with this story, because it's really important to understand what situation your family is in as you select schools to put on your list as the goal is to have options once you receive your college admissions results. Without options, sometimes college cannot become a reality. In fact, I've seen and heard about it way too many times, which is why we're going to cover some important tips when it comes to affording college.

1. Understand the difference between merit and financial aid.

A former colleague once asked me for help as they wanted to be able to help their child get a full ride to an Ivy based on their academic achievements. Around April, I see the same types of headlines hit the media--ones where students turn down acceptances into top-tier schools, to accept full rides at their state institutions. In most of these situations, it because top-tier schools only offer financial aid (everyone's brilliant, so it'd be hard to offer merit) and depending on the family's situation, they may have to pay full price - $70k and up to attend these elite schools, if they didn't receive any financial aid. In contrast, a free ride at their state-school for achieving a high GPA and test scores, can be a good option, especially if a student wants to pursue graduate studies. Merit is based on a student's achievements and financial aid is based on the family's financial situation. Which does your family fall under? Some schools offer both.

2) Do I qualify for financial aid?

In order to understand the first question, you may need to first estimate how much money you are expected to pay for college. While you will fill out the FAFSA and potentially a CSS Profile as part of the financial aid process for schools, you can calculate the estimated amount you will pay by simply using the Expected Family Contribution calculator available on the financial aid page of the college's website. While they are only an estimate, they should serve as an idea for what kind of aid you may qualify for or if you won't qualify for any. If you do not qualify for enough financial aid, you may want to consider looking at schools that offer generous merit aid.

3) College costs rise about 2 to 5% each year.

When I started college, cost of attendance was about $39k a year. By the time I graduated four years later, it had risen to $46k a year. While there are some schools like George Washington University that offer tuition freezes for four years, you should budget for the price increase each year. There are even some schools that are cutting tuition, like Drew University, but its extremely rare.

4) What other options do I have?

If merit aid and financial aid are not enough for college, perhaps look at starting your first year or two at a community college where you can get credit and also knock out your liberal arts requirements before transferring to a school of your choice. While I know there is a stigma associated with this option, keep in mind that your degree says the school you graduated from. It's a better option than loans--think about it, would you rather be drowning in debt or off to owning your first car or house with the money you saved?

Lastly I'd like to leave you with some resources depending on which bucket you fall under.

Top Schools for Financial Aid

Money's The 28 Best Colleges for Need-Based Financial Aid

US News Colleges that Meet Full Financial Need

Top Schools for Merit Aid

Money's The 46 Best Colleges for Getting Big Merit Scholarships

US News Most Students Receiving Merit Aid

PrepScholar's 85 Colleges with Full-Ride Scholarships

#financialaid #payingforcollege #affordingcollege #meritaid #financialaid

With no rice at home for dinner, I ran to my local Asian grocer to pick up a bag. As I placed the large sack on the checkout counter, I looked up to see a Chinese boy, no older than 12, scanning my rice and telling me how much I owed.

In that moment, I was reminded of what an interesting sight it must have been for my parents’ customers’ back in the day to be greeted by a 9-year-old when they picked up their takeout order.

“Fu Lu Su, how may I help you?” I would say over 40 times a day, seven days a week, as I manned the telephones of my parents’ first small Chinese restaurant. It was one of those hole-in-the wall joints with no decor, unless you counted that golden kitty cat that has their paw raised. 

Although I felt robbed of my childhood at the time, I can now say I wouldn’t want it any other way. Some call it child labor. I call it   instilling values. Since my parents didn’t speak English fluently, I was in charge of taking orders, waitressing and was the face of the restaurant. My younger brother was a bus boy.

As first generation Americans, it wasn’t uncommon to see us helping our parents in their business ventures. My dad was a hell of a chef, and my mom was great with people. I still don’t know how they managed to do it, but they managed to get their business off the ground and become the go-to place for beef noodle soup. Even now, as an entrepreneur myself, I wonder how they did it with a language barrier and without family.

As it is with most Asian families, school came first. They couldn’t afford pre-school, so we came into kindergarten with dope math skills but not knowing what a vowel was. We could speak English, though — thanks to our awesome Jewish babysitter/grandmother. So, even with a restaurant, the one place we went to twice a week after school  was  the library. We read through six to eight books each a week. It fed our passion for reading and writing. My favorite book at the time was Matilda, and I still recall reading an excerpt to customers while they waited for their food to be ready. Man, they were kind and patient!

My parents later sold their restaurant and took up menial but respectable work as a cook in the mall and nanny so we could focus on high school. We finally had time to do what other kids do — play a sport, join clubs, volunteer, paint, etc.

My parents couldn’t afford the fancy SAT prep classes but got us a prep book, and we did the best we could. We graduated with relatively low SAT scores, as it goes for many Asians. I got a 1340. My parents thought it was a waste of time to apply for great universities, because we couldn’t afford them and, most importantly , who would accept us with such “low” scores?

I didn’t bother applying to any Ivys, even though I was valedictorian and class president. While filling out my college application, I was ashamed to fill in my parents’ occupation and education level. My mother had only made it to middle school, and my father only finished elementary school. You wouldn’t be able to tell, though — my father is a fierce opponent when it comes to talking global affairs and can find practical use for any piece of garbage. And my mother can open up and fix most small electronic devices.

What I didn’t know at the time was that being a first-generation college student was admirable, and that schools did look at other factors, and financial aid did make it possible to attend those really expensive schools.

So… where did we end up?

My brother graduated from Williams College and now has a well-established and respected career in finance. I ended up graduating from Georgetown University — the only elite school I applied to on a whim based on my brother’s encouragement. I went on to work for some well-known Fortune 100 companies. Now, I help students and their families navigate the often confusing and stressful college admissions process, both as a profession and pro bono, because that is what I find meaningful in my life. I LOVE my life.

To all the other kids who are working hard to help their families — the first generation kids — you’re going to make it! Keep working hard, go to a great school, and you’ll have the opportunity to change your and your family’s future.

Its junior year of high school and you’re trying to figure out what to do for that pivotal summer before senior year. You know it’s important. After all, it’s a common question for supplemental essays you’ll encounter on your college applications this Fall, so what do you do?

Here are four ideas for activities that will help you stand out for college admissions:

1. Get a Job - Working a paid job over the summer demonstrates responsibility, persistence, and diligence and if you can find a job that demonstrates humility, that’s even better! Given the push for diversity lately, if you can find a job in which you get to interact with those that are different from you, it may also provide inspiration for future essays you write.

Given that college students usually look for jobs upon returning home from school in May, try to get a head start, by applying for jobs in April. Try looking for work in your local neighborhood - it can be at the local grocery store, mall, or restaurant. The best way to find something is to get in there and ask the manager if they are hiring. It will also give you an opportunity to practice your communication and interviewing skills.

2. Volunteer – Similar to getting a job, volunteering in your local community demonstrates all of the above, but on top of it, it also gives admissions glimpse into your character and what you care about. Given last year’s new focus on “niceness,” participating in volunteer activities that relate to your interests and demonstrate your time commitment and level of involvement are all great ways to show admissions your concern for others.

Many students ask if they need to go abroad to volunteer and the truth is, it is better to volunteer and give back locally. If there is an organization that you’re particularly fond of, reach out to them and see how you can get involved. Volunteer opportunities also fill up fast, so try to reach out to different organizations as soon as possible.

3. Start Something – Colleges love students who take initiative! Maybe you can’t find an organization that does what you would love to do? Well, that’s the perfect reason to start one! Whether it be starting your own business, non-profit, or other activity, starting your own thing provides you with instant leadership and demonstrates your entrepreneurial spirit.

If you’re apprehensive about start something on your own, think about starting something with a friend of yours who shares your interest. It doesn’t have to be fancy. For example, you could start a chess club at your local library where you not only host times for people to play together, but perhaps you offer coaching sessions to little kids to introduce them to chess too. It can be anything – just start something – the sooner the better!

4. Dive into Your Passions – The main theme for your activities should be related to what you are passionate about – academically, personally, and professionally. The summer is a great time to either continue to further deepen your involvement in these areas or to further explore them. For example, if you are interested in studying business, but your school doesn’t offer any business classes, consider participating in summer programs or activities that would enable you to explore that interest further, whether it be a weeklong educational program or an opportunity to shadow someone in an industry you are interested in going into. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money either. And remember, if you are interested in attending a summer program at a college or university, do it because you genuinely like the program and not because you think it will improve your chances of getting accepted by the school – because it doesn’t.

Can you find the common theme between these four activities? Whatever you do, it should be about YOUR interests and YOUR growth as a person! They are also all opportunities that will hopefully inspire stories for you to share on your supplemental essays. Now is a great time to get started as deadlines for summer programs, jobs, and volunteer opportunities come up soon! What did you end up doing for the summer? Would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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