Budget Student's Guide to Admissions

Admissions Guide

By Toni Martello

Lower- and middle-income high school students may be as talented and involved as their wealthier peers, but they don’t always have access to the same opportunities that money can buy (and that look great on college applications). Private music lessons, annual golf club memberships, and life counselors may help students pad their resumes, but not everyone’s families can afford to pay the skating coach’s salary while still paying their bills. And just to be able to afford a college education, many students take on a part-time job (or two, or three) to start contributing small drops into the large tuition bucket.
Make your lemons into lemonade (and then sell it)

Budget-conscious students face unique challenges when it comes to the admissions game. But this also gives them unique opportunities to stand out from their more moneyed peers, with tales of hard work and obstacles overcome that pique admission officers’ interest. You need to learn how to spin your skills into what colleges are looking for.

Do not assume that admissions officers will automatically understand that you had to work or care for a younger sibling every day after school rather than becoming Captain of Everything Extracurricular. Consider your audience – even if they personally came from low-income backgrounds, deans now make decent salaries and are surrounded by the academic elite. Applications almost always provide a box for additional relevant information, so use it to your advantage to provide some much-needed context for the person evaluating your application. In addition to work experience, talk about any other unique experiences you may have had – perhaps you have a distinctive perspective on the world.

If you’ve been dealing with additional responsibilities throughout high school, you’ll probably have more experience with the “real world” before you get to college than most other students do when they leave. You have learned more than you may realize from those part-time jobs you were working to support yourself. Perseverance, time management, money management, collaboration with coworkers, and conflict resolution strategies are just a few examples of skills you can polish through employment. It also takes a fair amount of intellect, fortitude, and tenacity to achieve the academic record necessary to get into college on top of working. That is no small feat, and do not let admissions officers forget it.
Getting in doesn’t mean going broke

Thinking about how you’ll afford four years of college may be daunting, but even applying can put a serious squeeze on your savings account. Everyone wants their cut, but many schools and organizations have built in additional support for students on a tight budget. Check out the following ways to cut costs during the admissions process: 

Fee waivers: The College Board provides a limited number of fee waivers for the SATs and subject tests for qualifying students. Some schools may also offer application fee waivers in conjunction with the College Board. The Common Application has fee waiver application on its website.

Make your case: If a school you are interested in doesn’t outright offer need-based waivers, call and state your case to an actual human. It may not work every time, but sometimes people respond better to direct contact.

Interviews: Few schools demand an in-person, on-campus interview…but a little face time goes a long way. See if you can arrange for an interview with a local alumnus or school rep, or check the admission calendar to see if the school will be sending recruiters to your town—and then make sure you show. Alumni interviews tend to be more laidback, so no need to shell out for a power suit. But looking nice doesn’t hurt. They’re not expecting Gucci, just an outfit that looks like you made an effort. 

Campus visits: Ask the admissions office if they can set you up to stay with a current student when you make an overnight visit. Not only will you save money on lodging (and potentially food), you’ll get an inside view into students’ lives as well.

Financial aid: Many schools now have need-blind admissions policies, meaning that your financial situation will not be taken into account when your application is reviewed. Plus, a few schools are switching from loan-based aid to grant-based aid, a shift that could have big implications for your future. Other schools may have alumni or affiliate scholarships for students from a certain backgrounds or geographic regions. Letting financial aid offices know early that you are interested may help get you the inside scoop on deadlines or awards. Also, if you plan on participating in extracurricular activities in college such as music or sports, get in touch with the relevant faculty or staff. There might be a special tuba-players’ fund you’ve never heard of that can help you get your foot in the door (and pay some bills to boot).