9 Things First-time College Students Need to Know

Tips for Success8 mins

Planning for college or career school can be overwhelming for many first-time students. We want to make sure you have easy access to information about financial aid, budgeting, time management, and more. Get prepared by reading these planning tips before school starts.


Confirm that your school has your financial aid ready.

The first step to financial planning for college is to apply for federal student aid. If you haven’t submitted it already, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form as soon as you can!

Early summer is a good time to check with your school’s financial aid office to make sure that your paperwork is complete and you understand your financial aid package. You’ll also want to explore your options if there’s a gap between the cost of your school and the financial aid you’ve been offered. If you accept any student loans, make sure you only borrow what you need and keep track of what you’re borrowing.


Learn to build a budget and manage your money.

Learning how to budget when you start college can help you manage your finances in the long run—it’s important that you know how much money you’ve got coming in and going out.

Start thinking about your financial plan when building your budget:

  • Determine a time period for your budget. Are you budgeting for a month, academic year, or calendar year?
  • Find a budgeting tool, app, or spreadsheet template that helps you stay organized. It takes trial and error, so don’t feel discouraged if the first one you try isn’t the right fit. To track spending, many banks offer free budgeting tools that may be worth checking out.
  • Understand how much money you have coming in. This includes income from work and your financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, Federal Work-Study, and student loans.
  • Understand how much money you have going out. Expected expenses include tuition, housing, and food. But don’t forget about unexpected costs like equipment, books, supplies, and personal expenses, which will vary from month to month.

The following image provides a sample breakdown of college expenses.

Think through the various costs involved in attending school. You’ll know most costs ahead of time (expected costs), but you’ll have to estimate some costs (unexpected costs).
Expected costs include tuition, school fees, and room and board. Unexpected costs include equipment, books, school supplies, transportation, and other personal expenses.

Tip: Consider opening an account with a bank or credit union that has convenient locations near your campus, and if you can, start an emergency fund in a savings account.

Learn more about budget planning for college students.


Know how to save money where you can.

Couponing and scoring deals—in newspapers, magazines, apps, and online—make saving money easier than ever. Be sure you take advantage of free resources and know where you can save money:

  • Some tech companies offer student discounts on laptops that could save you money on the equipment you need for school.
  • Consider buying or renting used textbooks. And if you’re planning to sell textbooks back to your college bookstore at the end of the semester, check with online retailers first to see what your books are worth. College bookstores sometimes only pay 10% of the purchase price, so you may be better off selling yours online.
  • Federal Pell Grant recipients may be eligible for discounted broadband internet. The offer may include a monthly discount on your internet service and some equipment, like your modem and computer.
  • Seek out student discounts from companies big and small. Theaters and venues often have special student pricing or rush tickets for an even better day-of deal. Be sure to also take advantage of free events, like on-campus concerts and performances, and free days for students at local museums.


Explore available campus food resources.

Look for programs that can help reduce your spending on groceries and dining out.

School meal plans usually include special food pricing, and local restaurants, cafes, and stores often have student discounts or deals. If you’re feeling social, student club meals and potlucks are typically budget-friendly and a fun way to try new foods. You can also check to see if your school has a campus food pantry where you can grab what you need and go.

Another option to explore is the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps supplement the food budget of people who qualify for assistance. SNAP was expanded to include students participating in the Federal Work-Study Program or a state-funded work-study program.


Craft a strong resume and start networking.

Work experience is just as crucial as good grades when it comes to job hunting after college or career school. So, don’t wait until you’re finishing your degree to create your cover letter and resume. Being able to effectively describe your skills and sell your strengths now is vital when applying for jobs and internships while you’re in school.

Start looking for internships as soon as you can. Internships provide you with knowledge-building experiences in your field, along with networking opportunities. Surrounding yourself with peers who share similar interests and goals—and meeting people further along in their careers who can mentor you—can help you feel supported while you make important connections for the future.

Once school starts, explore extracurricular activities and attend career fairs to introduce yourself to employers. Make sure you have a professional, appropriate email address to share with people you meet. Start with your name and keep it simple—you want them to remember you.


Find a part-time job.

If you’re planning to work part-time while in school, start looking for opportunities now—before you get to campus. This will help lower the stress of finding a job once classes start. Working during school can teach you money management skills and also help limit the amount of funds you need to borrow.

If Federal Work-Study was included in your financial aid package, you may be able to find a job that’s relevant to your field of study. For example, you might try working at the science library if you are a biology major. But remember, being awarded work-study does not guarantee you a job—some schools match students to jobs, but most require you to find, apply, and interview for roles on your own. Often, the most competitive and interesting roles are filled quickly, so contact your school’s financial aid office to see what’s available and how to apply. Check out eight things to know about Federal Work-Study.


Keep yourself (and your things) safe.

Yes, you need to remember to lock your dorm room and use a laptop lock! Getting your laptop stolen can derail your studies, and leaving your door unlocked may put you or your roommate in harm’s way. Having a roommate for the first time can be tricky enough—be respectful and smart when it comes to protecting your shared space.

Other tips to help you stay safe:

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Learn where emergency exits are in your dorm or wherever you are living, as well as around campus.
  • Know who to contact in an emergency. Schools often have a campus security or emergency number, so be sure to add it as a contact in your phone.
  • Protect your Social Security number (SSN), usernames, and passwords. Your SSN may be one of your main identifiers when checking on things like financial aid or grades and could be used to register for classes. So, never keep sensitive personal information on a sticky note at your desk—usernames and passwords should always be stored in a secure place.

Important: Not protecting your identity and valuable information can impact your ability to get a job and apply for credit in the future.


Start developing time management skills.

Time management can make or break a college career, so stay organized and plan your schedule mindfully.

Build a calendar to stay on track with your coursework, part-time job, extracurricular commitments, and deadlines, like registering for classes or applying for scholarships. Using your phone’s calendar or free scheduling apps can help you stay on top of everything.

Another way to set yourself up for success is to make sure you understand your class schedule, so you can avoid double-booking yourself or registering for back-to-back classes that are located on opposite ends of campus.

No matter how busy you get, make sure you remember to rest. Plan downtime to have fun, spend time with friends, and decompress. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need support, look for on-campus and free mental health resources. Many schools have counseling, mental health, and disability centers. Here are two other helpful hotlines:

  • National Alliance in Mental Illness (NAMI) hotline: Call 1‑800‑950‑NAMI or text NAMI to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention hotline: Call 1‑800‑273‑8255, available 24/7


Get ready to fill out the FAFSA® form again.

You’ll need to renew your FAFSA form every year that you plan to be in school and want to receive student aid. Some schools and states have limited funds for grants and scholarships, so it’s important to submit your FAFSA form as soon as you can once it becomes available!

Learn about federal, college, and state FAFSA deadlines.