How do I decide between schools?

Financing College 101

The college conversation shouldn’t start with how much a particular school costs. For the full story on why not, read The Unbranded Student: Reclaiming Your College Search. The short version is that we’re trying to help students discover which options in the college search are tailored to their specific needs. Only after they’ve done that work should you start thinking about the financing piece. By starting with the question of cost, you close the door on potential opportunities. Realistically, though, we understand that we have to talk money at some point.

 Paying for college might feel like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s even hard to know what a school’s tuition rates are; university websites don’t always offer straightforward information about cost. But knowing your options can ease the stress. Here’s a quick primer to get you started thinking about how to pay for university.

  1.  Start a FAFSA. FAFSA is a free application that current or prospective students submit to determine their eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study funds. Start a FAFSA here.

  2. Get serious about scholarships. You want to start with the free money, right? Unlike loans, scholarships don’t have to be repaid, so prioritize scholarship funds. Here’s what students need to know:

    1. Start early. Finding and applying for scholarships is a time-consuming and demanding process. You have to search, apply, write essays, get reference letters, and allow time for the review process. So start early and give yourself plenty of time to avoid burnout. We’re helping with scholarships too!

    2. Search often. There’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply for, and databases are periodically updated with new offerings. By searching often and applying widely, you give yourself the best chance for earning those dollars.

    3. Sell your genuine self. Scholarships are competitive. Tell the truth, but don’t be afraid to brag. This is the perfect place to let your best qualities shine.

    4. Submit early. Each scholarship application has a deadline. Mark it down and aim to submit the application a couple days ahead of time so a spotty Internet connection or computer problems don’t ruin your submission.

  3. Check out grants. Whereas scholarships are merit-based, grants are need-based. But because grants are another source of free funds, you want to see if you qualify. Look to the federal government, your state, and your college for available grants. Try this grant and scholarship finder.

  4. Apply for work-study. Federal Work-Study provides part-time work through on- and off-campus jobs to students who qualify. Learn more about work-study options here.

  5. Take out loans. Because loans have to be repaid, we put them last on our list. After tapping into savings, grants, and scholarships, many students find they still need loans to cover college costs. Students should start with federal loans, as they offer benefits over private loans, and with subsidized over unsubsidized to avoid paying interest while in school. FAFSA is your starting point for taking out loans. You can also create a CSS profile to search for institutional aid. Remember, the average debt of graduating college students is around $30,000. (Read our post about whether college is worth it to see how $30k is a pretty cheap investment for the future earnings of a person with a degree.)


Don’t let the high cost of college get you down. Use this five-step process to review your options and make the best choice for you. Just remember, if you haven’t read The Unbranded Student and completed the companion online course, you’re starting out on the wrong foot. College is expensive—choosing the wrong college even more costly. That’s why the book and course start the college search by choosing the right major and university. Then, once you’ve narrowed your focus, you can trust that the time you put into figuring out how to finance it will be well-spent. Wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t so complicated? Yes! Go to college and become the politician that fixes it for all of us. But in the meantime, get to work!

3 surefire ways students find the right college

Today’s high school students are facing huge challenges to their college search. Too many students follow their friends to school or pick a university with a good reputation or go where they can root for their favorite football team. These aren’t inherently bad reasons to go to a school, but they don’t maximize students’ potential for a successful education.

Students can build a foundation for success by taking a more intentional approach to the college search, but it starts with a shift in mind-set. Here at The Unbranded Student, we believe college is not just an end in itself. When college is the ultimate goal, it sets students up to be disappointed and ill prepared for life after school. But when college is the means to an end, it becomes a tool students use to design the life they dream of beyond university. This is a perspective that not only helps students graduate from college, but also go to a college that is right for them—with less debt, in less time, and on a straightforward path to the life and career they dream of.

Using this approach to the college search, there are three things students must consider before they even think about what school is right for them.



 Students need to know who they are. What makes them unique? What drives them? What are they good at? They need insight into their personality, skills, and interests so they can make an informed choice about the kinds of careers they’ll enjoy and thrive in. Personality tests like the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and the Big Five can be a great starting point. Even the Building Blocks test we’ve developed is a good start. Take the parent assessment here, or access the student assessment here.



Going to college is a great experience in its own right. But to make the most of the educational tools offered at university, students should know why they’re pursuing the course of study they’ve chosen. What’s the driving force behind their chosen career path? Interest and passion for a subject are fulfilling in the short term. But imagine if your student could identify and articulate larger goals through a personal mission statement. They’d have a compass to navigate the bigger life and career questions waiting for them beyond college.



 Once students know who they are and why they’re passionate about their career path, they should be asking what major could best prepare them for that career. When a student identifies the best major for their chosen career path, they’re giving themselves the best possible chance for success to step into the job market after graduation. This allows them to enter the workforce with the tailored knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to land that first job.

Set your student up for a successful college search by encouraging them to do this introspective work. This approach starts students out on the right foot. It’s intentional, measurable, and empowering. Best of all, it’s designed to remove the guesswork.

Finding answers to these three questions will give your student an invaluable head start: self-awareness. Armed with this self-knowledge, they’re ready to make the best decision about what school is right to help them achieve their goals.

If you like this approach to the college search and you’re looking for more tips and tools, check out The Unbranded Student book and the five-week online companion course.