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Confessions of a College Counselor: 4 Hot Tips to Avoid College Debt

Colleges are a business and you are the client. So, why aren’t you shopping around for the best deal?

Let’s look at it like buying a car. Tesla, the Ivy League of vehicles, does not negotiate on pricing. For the rest of us who can’t afford a Tesla, there are Fords, Chevrolets, and Kias. Since they all have the same basic functions, they level the playing field, so you can shop around.

That’s the college process. Apply to at least 20 colleges (max out your Common Application please), then pick and choose from your list of acceptances.

I like to tell my clients that they should first look at the numbers, and then consider their feelings about a previous visit. Then I urge them to think once again about their pocketbooks.

Most families fail to do one thing that could save them thousands: negotiate the product. Your first financial aid award letter is a starting offer. Save your money. Unless you are getting into an Ivy League school, always negotiate with your colleges.

And, like a used car, negotiate for the best price you can get. This is what I wish I knew when I was 17 and not looking at the price tag to attend my prestigious private college. Now I want to share it with you.

I’ve built a business on helping students and families avoid this crushing debt that can drag down your finances for decades—and I want to share it with everyone.

Test drive your colleges. Sure, you might love the feeling of the full priced Ferrari, but you know the practical economic choice is a Ford. Choose your college in the same way.

4 Hot Tips to Avoid College Debt

Tip 1: Give yourself options—a lot of them.

The more colleges you apply to, the more options you’ll have. It’s that simple. (If you were shopping around for a car, you’d want a lot on the larger side, right?) In my experience working with thousands of students, I recommend applying to 20-30 colleges—not the traditional 10 your high school counselor advises you to.

Tip 2: Apply to as many Early Action as you can.

You are eligible for up to 50% more financial aid when you do. Better yet, apply to one Early Decision as well. Colleges have the most money until March. So the earlier you apply, the more funding they have to provide if you are accepted. Early Action and Early Decision applicants are eligible for merit-based awards in addition to regular financial aid. Translation: You worked your butt off for good grades, so get that money because of it.

Tip 3: Don’t present bad credit to the sales office.

Bring your best application to the colleges. In the fall, when you kick off junior year, take the SAT and ACT every single time it’s offered. The more you take the test, the more your scores go up. I promise. Colleges have a limited amount of financial aid, so they are shopping for students’ worth just like you are shopping for colleges’ worth. So present yourself well and produce top grades, and stack your schedule with AP and Honors courses. Bring your best or go home.

Tip 4: Go to the top of the financial aid office and build a relationship with them.

Ask for more consideration on their aid. Explain you received a better offer from _____ college... and could they match it? Like you negotiate offers from other car salespeople, negotiate your financial aid offer. Do this until March, because after that it’s a bit too late. Colleges are out of money.

Try out these tips. I hope they help. Our counselors have been doing this for over 10 years with 8,000 kids across New York City. And we just started doing this on Facetime for families across America.

Check us out at

Stay tuned for more tips in our next article.

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