written by
Jesper Ke

Harvard Financial Aid Guide: How I Paid for College

Financial Aid Guides 17 min read

In this Harvard Financial Aid Guide, Bullseye advisors Thuong (Harvard ‘24) and Jesper (Harvard ‘19) walk us through how they saved up and paid for Harvard University with the help of financial aid. For more guidance on financial aid and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


L’Eglise aux Morts d’Harvard L’édifice religieux a été construit en 1932, il mesure 60 mètres jusqu’au sommet de la girouette et peut recevoir plus de 1200 personnes. Il y a une cloche en haut de l’église, et cette cloche, qui signale les heures de classes et les offices, est gravée avec la phrase suivante:  - A la mémoire des voix qui sont éteintes.
Photographer: Pascal Bernardon | Source: Unsplash

Founded in 1636, Harvard is considered one of the top universities in America. Yet with a tuition of $54,000, the cost of attending Harvard is far from cheap. Even after financial aid and scholarships, college still comes with many extra costs including textbooks, technology, dorm supplies, and socializing. After all, you shouldn’t have to skip hanging out with friends in Boston or eating at restaurants now and then!

If you’re thinking of applying to Harvard, it’s important to understand the Harvard financial aid process. In this guide, we’ll walk you through how to finance your college education, from high school to post-graduation.

Before Harvard: Saving Up in High School

It’s never too early to start saving for college. As a high school student, college might seem too far away to even think about. However, considering the high cost of a college education, a smart decision would be to start saving up now.

Part-time jobs

In high school, most of my friends and I had part-time jobs — whether as babysitters, tutors, or receptionists — both in the summer and during the school year. The pay varied, but the benefits did not: this income both allowed us more financial freedom and helped us save for college. Even if you only allocate a small portion of your paycheck toward college savings, it all adds up.

Thuong: In high school, I used to tutor for a family friend’s elementary school children, helping them with math and reading homework. I would tutor three times a week and was paid $20 an hour for each session. Since I didn’t have a car (and, therefore, did not have to worry about gas or insurance), I saved most of my earnings for college. Some of my friends had other jobs, including working for fast food restaurants in the area, babysitting, and watching over kids at a local after-school program.

One common argument against getting a part-time job is that it will distract students from their studies. Some people also think that time spent working could better be spent on studying, doing extracurricular activities, and preparing for the college admissions process. After all, education is the number one priority for high school students.

Despite these valid concerns, getting a part-time job does not have to interfere with your education or college prospects. So many Harvard students have work experience from high school, and their jobs didn’t keep them from getting in!

Contrary to popular belief, a part-time job does not diminish the strength of one’s application. The Director of Admissions of The College of the Holy Cross stated that she would look “favorably on jobs, especially when there is a financial need.” Likewise, the Director of Admissions at Lehigh University commented that students who work do not “need to justify it” on their college applications. In fact, the Common Application includes work under the Extracurricular Activities section. Don’t worry about whether or not having a job will weaken your chances of getting into Harvard, or any college. Simply put, it won’t.

As long as you manage your time so that work does not undermine your academic performance and your mental health, the pros of getting a part-time job definitely outweigh the cons.

Photographer: Clay Banks | Source: Unsplash

Local scholarships and contests

Guess what - you can apply to college scholarships, even as a freshman in high school! Some scholarships are open to students from particular grade levels or specifically for high school underclassmen.

Often, these scholarships are minimal. They will not offer you thousands of dollars to cover all your cost of attendance. However, no sum is too small to use! Even if it’s only $100, any amount of money can significantly help you out in college. Besides, the competition for these scholarships is relatively small. Your odds will be much better for local scholarships than for national programs such as the Gates or Jack Kent Cooke Scholarships. And, as mentioned above, these small amounts of money will accumulate. Check out those scholarships and start applying.

For starters, I recommend searching up scholarships on Unigo.

Contests are also a fantastic way to earn money. Photography, video-making, or essay contests are known to give out cash prizes. Plus, these also count as awards for your college applications! When it comes to saving for college, no amount of money is insignificant.

scrabble tiles and smartphone
Photographer: William Iven | Source: Unsplash

Applying to Harvard: Application Fees, Standardized Testing, and Scholarships

College application season has started, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t continue saving up. Since applying to college can be expensive, here are a few tips.

Use application fee waivers

It costs $75 to apply to Harvard College (and it’s not even the most expensive school to apply to — *cough* Stanford *cough*). However, most applicants don’t know that you can waive the application fees. There’s a box on the Common App that you can check to request that your application fee be waived (and don’t worry, schools will not penalize you for waiving application fees).

Here are three options for you:

  1. The NACAC Request Form: You can download this form and have your school counselor or a counselor from a community program fill it out for you to submit to colleges.
  2. The SAT/ACT fee waivers: If you receive the fee waiver for the SAT and/or ACT, you can apply to colleges for free.
  3. Check directly with the colleges: You can also call or email the admission office to ask about their policy for fee waivers or to directly request one.

There are so many important things to spend your money on. Your application fee is not one of them.

Save Money on Standardized Testing

Another good way to save up prior to applying to college is to eliminate unnecessary expenses for necessary causes.

Take standardized testings for example. The SAT test without the essay costs $49.50. The essay section costs an additional $15, making the total cost $64.50. Most people will take the SAT more than once, meaning that you will spend almost a hundred dollars on the test alone. This doesn’t include tutoring services or prep books, or the fact that it also costs money to send your test scores to colleges. These fees quickly add up. For low income or middle class students, this can be frustrating. After all, it is ironic to spend so much money applying to schools that will hopefully offer significant financial aid.

My secret strategy to combat this? Fee waivers. SAT fee waivers allow you to take up to 2 SAT tests, 6 SAT Subject Tests in three 3-test dates, and to send your scores to colleges, all for free.

The eligibility requirements for the SAT fee waivers are:

  • You’re enrolled in or eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
  • Your annual family income falls within the Income Eligibility Guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
  • You’re enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families (e.g., Federal TRIO programs such as Upward Bound).
  • Your family receives public assistance.
  • You live in federal subsidized public housing or a foster home, or are homeless.
  • You are a ward of the state or an orphan.

Make sure to reach out to your counselor to request a fee waiver if you are eligible. (Also, pro tip, sometimes, the CollegeBoard will give more fee waivers than needed to schools. If you ask nicely, maybe your counselor can provide you with leftover fee waivers.)

Another good way to save up money from standardized testing is to buy used prep books. Every year, test preparation companies such as Barron’s or the Princeton Review publish new editions of prep books that cost around $20 to $30. Trust me, you do not need the newest edition of the prep books, despite what the cover tells you. Unless the test has recently gone through a major change (like what happened to the SAT in 2016), the differences between the 2018 edition and the 2020 edition are not significant enough to warrant spending money on the newest books. Instead, considering either buying used books or using the older editions offered in your local library.

Looking up PDF versions of prep books online is also an option. For instance, www.cracksat.net has lots of practice materials for standardized tests including the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and even the APs.

Note: Harvard does not require standardized testing for this year’s application cycle due to Covid-19.

Photographer: Ben Mullins | Source: Unsplash

Apply for Merit, Need-Based, and Local Scholarships

Something no one will tell you but you should definitely know: treat scholarships applications as a separate application process altogether. Scholarships applications can just be as time-consuming as the actual college applications. So make sure you dedicate enough time to find and apply for scholarships.

There are generally three types of scholarships:

  • Merit Scholarships: Merit scholarships are usually offered by individual colleges. While some schools automatically consider every applicant for their merit scholarships (shoutout to Roanoke College in Virginia, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and Oberlin College in Ohio), some will ask you to write extra essays. If you are selected as a finalist, these schools ask you to visit for a scholarship interview (*cough* Saint Louis University). There are also some independent merit scholarships. These include the Coca-Cola scholarships (which are heavily based on community service), the Future Engineer scholarships from Amazon, Cards Against Humanity’s Science Scholarships, and more.
  • Need-based scholarships: Need-based scholarships are specifically for low-income students or students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education. Need-based scholarships include some of the best-known scholarships programs out there (the Gates Scholarships, the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarships, the Dell Scholarships, etc). Besides offering money, they also offer additional support services for FGLI students. One negative side of these larger national scholarships are how competitive and how long their application processes are. The Gates scholarships application process goes from mid-September to early April, and they accept less than 1% of applicants. As wonderful as these scholarships can be, make sure you have backup plans in the forms of...
  • Local scholarships. They will not cover your entire college tuition, but they are less competitive and can definitely add up.
Thuong: Although I personally did not apply to local scholarships (I was lazy and already had a good financial aid package from my college from Early Action result), my peers who were awarded local scholarships received refunds from their colleges for personal expenses and even got to buy brand new devices for school. So, definitely do not ignore these gems. A good way to look for local scholarships is through your school counselor. They typically have a list of small local scholarships!
Designer sketching Wireframes
Photographer: Green Chameleon | Source: Unsplash

Harvard Financial Aid

Applying to college and applying for financial aid are two different things. In the perfect world, college would be free, at least for students with financial needs. Unfortunately, at least right now, applying for financial aid can be a lot of work. For more information on Harvard financial aid, be sure to check out the Harvard Financial Aid Office.

Now, let’s start untangling this process to help ensure you receive the Harvard financial aid you need.

The FAFSA:

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, is required for all domestic US students who want to receive financial aid. It opens every year on October 1st and must be filled out again each year.

Here’s a breakdown of the FAFSA questions:

  1. Student Information (Your personal information, not unlike what you fill out for the Common App)
  2. Student’s Financial Information
  3. Student Status (to determine whether or not you will need parental information)
  4. Parental Information (if needed)
  5. Student’s Household Information

It doesn’t take long. However, make sure you have your parent’s and your most recent tax return, as well as a W-2 or 1099 (if necessary) readily available.

Quick tip: The FAFSA has a limit of 10 schools at a time. However, as soon as your first set of schools is processed, you can send the form to the other schools on your list.

The CSS Profile

The CSS Profile is created and administered by the CollegeBoard. It is used mostly by private colleges as well as by some scholarships programs. Like the FAFSA, as long as you require financial aid, you will need to submit a CSS profile to your school each year.

Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS profile asks more detailed questions regarding your family’s financial situation to give colleges the most accurate picture of your financial needs. Students can send the CSS profile to an unlimited number of schools at once.

Sadly, the CSS profile also costs money. It costs $16 to send your CSS profile to one school. However, if you have an SAT fee waiver, this fee is also waived for you. (So, definitely try your best to get a fee waiver!)

Loans:

Let’s talk about student loans! No one likes or wants them.

Thankfully, as a Harvard student, loans are not a concern for the majority of the students. At Harvard, students are not “expected to take out loans” to pay for their Harvard education. With that said, the school does offer loans as an option for students. These loan options include the Federal Direct Subsidized Stafford Loan, the Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loan, and Harvard Loans.

If you choose to take out loans, try to pay them back as soon as possible, especially if they have high interest rates.

Photographer: freestocks | Source: Unsplash

Financial Aid at Harvard University:

Rather than providing merit-based scholarships, Harvard calculates its financial aid entirely based on need. What’s more, all aid that Harvard offers is in the forms of grants that do not need to be repaid rather than loans. Needless to say, Harvard provides generous need-based financial aid to its students, allowing those from any financial background to attend.

Specifically, families that make under $65,000 are not expected to contribute anything toward the cost of college tuition and room and board at Harvard. Families earning between $65,000 and $150,000 are expected to contribute 10% of their income, which leads to a $12,000 average parental contribution for Harvard students each year.

That being said, the university expects students on financial aid to contribute to their education. This contribution comes in the form of students’ own personal savings/assets (if applicable) as well as through work-study programs during the school year. At the moment, Harvard’s expected term-time work contribution is $3,500 per year. Harvard estimates that students will 10-12 hours per week to meet this expectation. This means that you’ll likely need to find a job on campus. You can also cover the student contribution through loans or find outside scholarships.

Work opportunities:

There are various ways to fulfill the work contribution expectation or make additional pocket change. One way is through taking a job on campus. Students can find many jobs through postings on the Crimson Careers website, an online job posting portal for Harvard students. These jobs range from serving as a paid research assistant for a project to working as an administrative assistant at a university office. Other jobs can include working as a paid tutor for your classmates through Harvard’s Academic Resource Center, staffing a student cafe as a barista, delivering dorm essentials through Harvard Student Agencies (a student run non-profit business), or cleaning undergraduate dorm bathrooms through Harvard Dorm Crew.

You can also find jobs outside of campus, such as at restaurants or coffee shops. However, on-campus jobs tend to work better around your busy schedule as a student. Some students will even find online tutoring opportunities (such as SAT prep) that offer flexible hours.

Jesper: While in college, I worked jobs ranging from serving as an administrative assistant at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies to participating in a program called PBHA Stride, which offers funding for income-eligible students to pursue service work during college. These experiences not only generated income but also helped me learn to navigate professional spaces.

Outside Scholarships:

Another way to meet the work contribution is through outside scholarships. You can use outside scholarships to cover the term-time work expectation as well as the student contribution. There are many local and national scholarships (like the Gate Millennium Scholars and Coca-Cola Scholars programs) that can offset your work expectation. Definitely search for those opportunities and apply!

Budgeting as a Harvard Student:

With all of this in mind, it is important to budget as a Harvard student. Eating out or shopping in the Cambridge and Boston area can add up quickly, as even the cheapest eateries in the area charge around $10 per meal. Fortunately, Harvard provides resources to its students on financial literacy. These include first-year workshops on budgeting and money management.

Jesper: In my experience, using a monthly income (or savings) to set a budget served as a good tool. I also estimated regular expenses, such as coffee and eating out, and compared them to my income/budget over each month. This helped me figure out if I needed to cut down on spending.

Additionally, many Harvard students open a checking account at one of the banks in Harvard Square. Usually, these accounts will offer functionalities like comparing your spending habits over different months. This can be a good way to track spending trends over time.

Eating Nachos
Photographer: Herson Rodriguez | Source: Unsplash

Summers at Harvard: Opportunities and Internships

Summer opportunities are another way to both earn money and gain valuable professional experience. Summer opportunities as a Harvard student typically fall into several categories: private sector internships, public sector internships, and other opportunities. Harvard provides generous financial support for students pursuing non-private sector opportunities in order to make them as accessible as possible.

Jesper: While in college, I pursued summer opportunities like studying abroad in China through Harvard Summer School, doing a public service internship in a Boston legal service clinic, and completing qualitative senior thesis research with Chinese migrants in Boston. Harvard fully funded all of these opportunities, which speaks to the resources available at the university to support any summer pursuits that interest you.

Private Sector Internships

Private sector internships require an intensive application and interview process. Recruitment usually starts in the fall preceding the summer of the internship. Most corporate firms will offer the bulk of their internship opportunities for the summer after sophomore or junior year. Private sector opportunities range from tech firms like Microsoft and Apple to consulting firms like McKinsey and Company and Boston Consulting Group. A select number of companies provide paid internship opportunities after freshman summer, such as the Facebook University program. Depending on the company, private sector internships will compensate students well for their summer work. Some students also choose to return home to find internships from local companies.

Public Sector Internships

Public sector internships offered through Harvard’s public service organizations, such as the Institute of Politics, Center for Public Interest Careers, and the Phillips Brooks House Association, typically also offer a stipend for summer work. While these public sector stipends do not compare to their private sector counterparts, students can use this funding to cover living expenses such as rent, groceries, and more. This means that you do not have to find other funding sources to pursue public service internships. Even students pursuing independent unpaid internships can typically apply for funding through Harvard in order to offset the cost.

Other Opportunities

Other opportunities include working as a summer research assistant, traveling, and independent pursuits. Harvard provides financial support for research opportunities, including offering funded residential research programs on-campus during the summer for science, humanities, business, and more. Some students may choose to use their own savings to travel during the summer or receive funding to participate in a Harvard summer study abroad program. Others may return home to decompress and relax. Finally, a variety of students will pursue independent projects in the summer, whether producing a music album, competing in national sports competitions, or engaging in advocacy work.


This informational essay was written by Thuong Ho (Harvard ‘24) and Jesper Ke (Harvard ‘19). If you want to get help with your Harvard application from Thuong, Jesper, or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

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