Choosing to go on to post-secondary education is a big decision. Although it may seem like the hard work begins once you're attending classes, there is actually a fair amount of leg work that you'll need to do before you even apply. (For more on post-secondary schools, check out The Declining Value Of A College Degree.)
TUTORIAL: Education Savings Account
Know Your Long-Term Goals
Though this may seem rather obvious, it's important to know what exactly you want to get out of your education before you apply to college or university. Are you studying with a particular job in mind? What careers will your education qualify you for?
Not to be too discouraging, but if you're working toward a degree with no particular end goal in sight, ask yourself if it's wise to invest so much time, money and resources if there's no measurable benefit at the end of the journey. If you are studying with a specific job in mind, you should research all your options before you commit to a particular school.
There is often more than one means to an end – some careers might be attainable with a two-year diploma as opposed to a four-year degree. (To help you decide on a career, read 12 Hot Careers And How Much They Pay.)
Understand the Admission Requirements
Every university's requirements are different, so investigating the requirements before applying will help you to determine if you've got a good chance at being accepted. This will also help you to avoid spending money unnecessarily on application fees.
It's also important to know the deadlines. Most universities have strict deadlines when it comes to submitting applications. Some of these deadlines might be earlier for some more competitive programs, or you may qualify for early admission in some circumstances. Generally, there are also deadlines for receipt of supporting documentation like transcripts, exam scores or perhaps even proof that you've obtained a student visa if you'll be studying abroad.
Get Your Documents in Order
This can be especially important if you'll be studying abroad, but all universities require some type of documentation to support your application, such as high school transcripts or documents from any other post-secondary institutions you may have already attended.
You may also be asked to provide information about any extracurricular or leadership-building activities you've participated in. If you know you're going to be applying to go to college or university, start getting these documents in order in advance so that you're not scrambling at the end to track down the information you need.
Most universities will provide a breakdown of fees in their application documents or on their websites. Some of these fees may vary by program or department. Do your best to estimate what your annual tuition will cost. Don't forget that you'll also be responsible to pay other costs like an application fee, administrative costs and student's union fees. You'll also be responsible for purchasing your own books and supplies. (For related reading, see 5 Colleges That Are Slashing Tuition Costs.)
It's a lot cheaper to live at home while going to school, but that's not an option for everyone. If you'll have to leave home to go to school, it's a good idea to start thinking about where you're going to live. Will you stay in student residence or campus housing? How much will it cost?
If you'd rather live off campus, you should investigate what renting an apartment will cost you per month, and consider whether or not you're going to live with a roommate. Familiarize yourself with the communities you're considering living in. Is the neighborhood safe, and where are the banks or grocery stores? Is public transit a viable option, can you walk to school, or will you need a car? These are all important decisions that will drastically impact your expenses.
Money, Money, Money
One thing that all students need is money. Going to school can cost a lot, and many students incur debt to cover all these costs. Once you have an idea how this is all going to cost you, you'll have to start making some decisions about how you're going to pay for your schooling. Will your family help to cover your costs? Can you get a high-paying summer job, or perhaps even keep a part-time job while you're going to school?
If you qualify for scholarships and bursaries, this can also be a big help. Don't be afraid to apply for a lot of scholarships – the worst that can happen is that you spent a little bit of time on an application, and with any luck you'll land yourself some extra funds.
If you aren't likely to have enough money after factoring work, family contributions and scholarships, student loans are always an option. Just keep in mind that you'll have to pay back whatever you borrow once you start working, so you should definitely keep that in mind when you're considering what you want to study. Knowing that you'll have access to a stable income once you're done school will make it a lot easier to pay that money back. (To help you work while in school, check out Job Hunting While In School.)
Get a Bank Account
If you don't already have a student bank account, you're definitely going to need one. You'll need to ensure that you've got a bank account so that any money from your summer job or the funds from your student loan are safely stashed away.
Student bank accounts are great because they tend to waive some or most of the banking fees. You may also qualify for a student credit card. If you'll be taking a year off to work before going on to post-secondary, investigate the benefits of opening a high-interest savings account so that you can hide away all your hard-earned cash and know that it's earning a higher amount of interest in the meantime.
Create a Solid Budget
Now that you've got a better idea how much this is all going to cost you, you're going to need to put together a rock-solid budget – and stick to it! Include rent, groceries, utility bills like your cell phone or Internet, and always remember that every month you'll have some unforeseen costs. You'll probably also want to make sure that you set aside some leisure money.
Part of the college or university experience is taking part in activities outside of school, and this definitely adds to the life experience that makes going to post-secondary school invaluable.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to college and university, homework isn't only limited to the classroom. You'll need to put in a fair amount of research before you even go to your first class. Be prepared and know what you're getting yourself into financially before you apply. The more prepared you are in advance, the better off you'll be throughout your schooling and beyond. (For more, see 10 Jobs With High Pay, Low Education Requirements.)