You’ve been preparing for this. You got the grades and have an idea of what you want to do for the rest of your life. Or maybe you don’t, and you’re winging it. Either scenario is ok. Leaving the comfort of high school is a big step. College comes in many forms, but the most critical thing you can consider right now is: where should I apply to?

Rushing to get into a good school doesn’t have to be a torturous process. It’s supposed to be as easy as making a list of colleges that look cool and apply, right? Well, it can be, but there’s a little bit more work involved than that. There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re studying brochures or obsessing about compiling every link ever to your top 50 colleges to check out.

First, you have to ask yourself: is college right for me? Societally, we’ve adopted a point of view that life begins and ends with a four-year degree. This is just wrong. There are a lot of talented, smart people who work in the trades and make a fantastic living doing so. If your idea of a great day is being outside and working with your hands, sitting in a classroom for four more years may not be the best use of time. Trade school or getting an apprenticeship with a union could be precisely what you need. Plumbers, bricklayers, carpenters make great livings. If framing a house or running conduit seems like fun, save yourself and your parents some cash and don’t try to cram that passion into getting a psychology degree that you won’t use.

If working with your hands isn’t your bag, that’s cool, too. There are a lot of jobs out there. One of the biggest mistakes a new student can make is center in on an area of study they have no intention of actually finding a career in. Students who get an obscure degree with a subject they can’t use in the real world are the ones that end up with mountains of student debt because typically they can’t find jobs to correspond with their skill set. It’s a vicious cycle, and no one in higher education is trying to stop it. If you’re not expecting to move to fill in the one job in 1840’s Russian art, what exactly are you planning to do with that degree? Be wise about what you want to major in. Take the classes and harvest a love for whatever lights your world up, but getting a job is the whole endgame of the exercise.

BUSTING MAJOR COLLEGE MYTHS

After you’ve faced a lot of existential questions and centered yourself, it’s time to pick a school. It’s not all just ACTs or SATs and GPAs – you need to attend a school that fortifies who you are as a person, or at least provides the kind of personal growth you’re after. There’s a college for everyone. There are over 4000 colleges in America. Do you want to learn in a high-pressure situation or at a place that’s laid back?

Don’t try to oversell yourself on one idea or the other. Go with your gut. If you’re a little high strung and need to have constant deadlines, you may want the kind of environment that an intense school schedule demands. If you’re low key and like a less stressful schedule, maybe an art school is what you need. Listen to what your gut tells you. Don’t let mom, dad or a friend pressure you into attending a school because they think it’s what’s best for you.

If you check out the stats on a school and don’t get that immediate “yeah, this is me” feeling, move on. They’ll never have your heart. Instead, you’ll always be wondering what other schools are like. Listen to that internal voice because usually, it knows best.

GO TO THE PLACE THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU

Keep culture in mind. If you’re a progressive liberal, going to a conservative school won’t be four years of perfect harmony. If you’re deeply religious, a secular college may be a great idea. Every community, no matter the makeup, has a set of values they uphold, and the college you pick should reflect yours. Some schools are way invested in their traditions while others… not so much. If there are things you aren’t personally into, don’t force yourself to adapt for the sake of a program. College is about enjoying the experience, not enduring the time because a few classes are interesting. Compile your choices into immediate Yes or No groups.

Stick to your guns. If you’ve got a college on your mind, go for it. Everyone feels inadequate at one point or another. No one is perfect, and no one has always batted .1000 in life. Don’t get lost in your fears about school to apply to the places you want to go. You’re cool enough. You’re smart enough, and you’ll find a place.

Don’t obsess. It’s not worth it. There’s always some movie where the kid is freaking out over getting into the school of their dreams. Take the journey one step at a time. Research a new school each day. If the school appeals to you, write it down and move on. Once you’ve compiled a few, start building out a plan. There are a lot of schools and a lot of amazing teachers. If you don’t have the grades for MIT but still want to work in the space, there are plenty of schools who’d love to have you on their team.

GET THE SUPPORT YOU NEED

Speaking of teams, don’t forget to lean on your people. Ask for help. Talk to your parents. See what’s up with your guidance counselor at your high school, or just grab a teacher to get an opinion on your goals. If you’ve got a question, call the college admissions office. Let them help you. You’re not in this alone. People want you to succeed.

That said, don’t rely on your friends. They mean well, but their goals aren’t your goals. Your friends are flying blind just the same as you are.

Keep costs in mind. There are a lot of grants, scholarships, and opportunities for students out there. There are grants specifically for left-handed people. There’s no excuse for you not to fire up the Google and look to see what kind of money you can save. College is expensive. You want to minimize the amount you’ll be spending. Student loans can rack up and guess who’ll be left holding the debt? You will.

Think long and hard about what goals you want to achieve with college. Can you attend a community college for two years to knock out your basics for a quarter of the price? Making sure you’re planning within a budget is essential. There’s an adage of not putting an amount on an education, but that’s not entirely fair. There is most definitely a price tag that comes with college.

Now that you’ve been briefed on the basics of prepping for college, are you ready to apply? We’re waiting for y’all to change the world.

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Getting an education is crucial. College, trade school, or whatever path you take can offer mind opening experiences. They also come with mind-blowing expenses and, for most, student loans.

It’s not exactly a dirty little secret that folks who go to college usually end up with severe debt that trails them around decades after they’ve graduated. College is expensive. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, “seven in 10 seniors (69%) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower.”

Just because you want an education doesn’t mean you have to dive into Uncle Sam’s wallet. There are a few colleges around the country that have swung open the doors and are free of charge or least way cheaper than the norm. Some of these schools have specific requirements, but if you meet said conditions, you could wind up with a free education and zero student loans creeping over your shoulder like a cartoon ghoul.

NEW YORK, THE FREE COLLEGE CITY

New York recently rolled out a plan for free college, but given that over a million students apply for student loans yearly, it’s going to take a while for them to sort out how many they can approve. Either way, it’s a step in the right direction given that students shouldn’t be crippled with debt just because they want a good education and career.

FREE COLLEGE ACROSS THE COUNTRY

So where are these mythical colleges? What do they want as an exchange for a quality education? Some of these colleges might be in your backyard, all it takes is a little internet sleuthing to see what they’re looking for regarding admissions.

ALICE LLOYD COLLEGE

Alice Lloyd is ranked #40 of the best regional colleges. Its free tuition program is mainly for underserved students in the greater Appalachian area. It has also got some impressive SAT scores:

How to Attend for Free:

Students at Alice Lloyd pay it forward and work at 160 hours a semester in the community or around the school. Dorms are not free, but $1,900 annually is affordable. The average student can walk away from Alice Lloyd with under $7K in student loan debt.

BARCLAY COLLEGE

A tiny Christian school in Kansas, Barclay College has a curriculum that’s religion-centered and offers free tuition to students who live on campus and study areas such as:

How to Attend for Free:

Well, it’s not all free. If accepted to Barclay on a scholarship, they’ll award you $11K, but you’re on the hook for room and board, and all of the other little fees.

BEREA COLLEGE

Another Kentucky school, Berea is a small liberal arts college that offers 28 different degrees. With a student body of around 1,500, the college prides itself a 1:1 student/faculty ratio.

The majority of students hail from Appalachia and the Princeton Review named it one of the best colleges in the Southeast. Berea College is continually high ranked as one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges.

How to Attend for Free:

Students accepted into Berea College are awarded a four-year tuition scholarship. Students are expected to work at least 10 hours a week around campus. The scholarship offered can work in concert with other grants or scholarships any many students leave Berea debt free.

COLLEGE OF THE OZARKS

Another private liberal arts college, College of the Ozarks is based in Missouri and has an enrollment of 1,500. Ranked #10 in the 2014 U.S. News & World Report edition of the Best Colleges in Regional Colleges (Midwest), Forbes also ranked College of the Ozarks #21 in the Midwest.

How to Attend for Free:

The school is tuition-free for full-time students, but to gain acceptance to College of the Ozarks, students will need to show proof of financial hardships. Accepted students are required to work around the campus and keep a 40-hour work week during breaks.

CURTIS INSTITUTE OF MUSIC

Music fans rejoice, there’s a school out there to help you live the dream of earning a degree. Located in Philadelphia, Curtis Institute of Music offers degrees including a:

Curtis Institute of Music is right on par with lauded names like Berkeley or NYU and is considering one of the finest conservatories in the world. Getting into Curtis is tough, though. Only 165 students attend at a time, and there’s just a 4% acceptance rate. The school’s trained instrumentalists hold the top 25 chairs in the major US orchestras.

An even more delicate point to put on it would be:

How to Attend for Free

You have to be amazing at your instrument. They’ll cover the costs to teach you, but you’ll need to test to get accepted.

DEEP SPRINGS COLLEGE

A genuinely unique education experience, Deep Springs College is a private two year school in California that has less than 30 students. Some of Deep Springs students go on to earn a graduate degree or doctorate.

Because the school is an “alternative institution” it holds its principles as the governing body of the college. Admissions vary from 6%-15%, and the average SAT math, and the verbal score is 700.

How to Attend for Free

Students are expected to help on the school’s ranch or alfalfa farm at least 20 hours a week.

THE UNITED STATES ARMED SERVICES

Most of the branches of the US military offers an education package if you attend their academy. The Army, Navy, Merchant Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force provide a four-year degree so long as you agree to four years of service.

WILLIAMSON FREE SCHOOL OF MECHANICAL TRADES

Located in Pennsylvania, the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades is state school rooted in its Christian faith but offers students programs in:

How to Attend:

There are a few stipulations you should know about:

The awarded scholarship covers room and board, tuition, and books.

NOT SO FREE, BUT LITTLE-KNOWN HELP FROM THE TOP-TIER

Some of the most prestigious schools in the country have programs to help students who don’t have the luxury of a blank checkbook for their educations. Schools like Duke, Harvard, Princeton, and MIT all have programs based on a sliding scale of affordability for students. While some programs are a little more progressive than others, do the research and see where you income line falls. Worst case, you may fall in line for a significant discount.

Hopefully, some of these schools are what you’re looking for. Everyone should have a right to a financially responsible education. It’s unfair there are only a handful of schools offering a free education, but more and more programs and universities are popping up yearly. If we missed a school leave us a comment or shoot us a tweet. We’re always on the hunt for new schools trying to break free of higher ed’s financial chains.

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