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Freshman Year

Want to Crowdfund Your College Education? Follow These Tips

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Micaela MacDougall is getting by with a little help from friends, family and strangers — in order to go to St. Andrews in Scotland for her dream master’s degree program.

MacDougall, 19, is disabled from spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy. So when a family friend created a crowd-funding profile to help her raise the money she needs for special housing and to send her parents over to St. Andrews too, she was thrilled.

“At first it was mostly just donations from people I already knew, sort of a venue for them to donate to, and then the news just got out,” said MacDougall, who credits her crowdfunding success to the compelling story of her disability as well her passion for the St. Andrews program. To date, she has raised more than $44,000 of her $75,000 goal on the crowd-funding site YouCaring. She’ll study theology, imagination and the arts at the picturesque school that Prince William once attended.

Micaela MacDougall
Micaela MacDougall youcaring.com

“All it takes is for one person to share for some amazing opportunities to come your way,” she said.

Get more tips and advice about college at The Freshman Year Experience on NBCNews.com

Inspired? Read on for experts’ tips on crowd-funding the cost of your education.

Do: Follow through

MacDougall got one particular infusion of cash thanks to an email that a scholarship society sent her. She decided to follow up and got the scholarship — a cool $2m500. “That led to an opportunity I hadn’t even thought of,” she said.

Do: Get personal

“People give to people first and foremost, all the time,” said Bre DiGiammarino, head of Indiegogo Life, another site where students can crowd-fund for no fee. “They’re going to want to know two sides: Who is the person receiving the funds, what are they going to do with the funds, why do they need them? And who is the person running the fundraiser?”

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Often, for education, a former teacher or mentor will run a student’s fundraiser. “Hearing that person’s story as well and why they care — it’s a thing we see missed a lot of the time,” DiGiammarino said. “But that endorsement, that social proof of why that person needs the funds, is so key.”

Do: Engage with your donors

Maryam Atallah, 21, is raising money for an aerospace engineering program in Germany as part of a University of Florida program. She has had to pay the money herself for the trip, and has raised over $16,000 of her $25,000 goal.

“I was able to add a little bit of personal touch about my story,” said Atallah, who dreams of one day designing engines for Mercedes Benz. “One thing that helped me was personally I was able to send every single donor an email saying, 'Thank you so much for your donation, this is what I’m going to be doing, this is the blog that you can follow, this is my journey.' People re-donated just because I sent that email to say thanks.”

Don't: Be afraid to bug your friends

“It’s really frustrating because I don’t want to annoy my friends by posting the same thing over and over,” Atallah said. “But the more you annoy these people, the more they’re going to be like, ‘she’s really serious about it, let me share it, let me talk about it so somebody can see it.’”

Don't: Be a bummer

“Make your story uplifting and inspiring,” Leonard Lee, spokesperson for YouCaring, said. “Talk about what you want to do with your education. People want to hear the hero story of people who have overcome obstacles, so even if you’ve dealt with a lot of hardships, present them in an uplifting light.”

Do: Add a lot of photos and videos

The more photos you add to your campaign, the more successful you will be, Lee said. “The magic number we have found is seven photos,” he said. “Videos are also good, because you can tell your own story, or you can show yourself in an educational setting. People want to see the person behind the story. They want a sense of who they’re giving to.”

Do: Ease donors’ minds

In addition to a bright, colorful campaign photo, connect your Facebook account to the campaign, so that people know you’re for real, said Kelsea Little, media director for GoFundMe.com, where the education category is “skyrocketing” to the tune of over $44 million raised for students already. Sites like GoFundMe also have teams working on the back end to catch imposters (and also rely on social media to expose fake profiles), but donors may still be leery. Make sure your potential funders know you’re a real student in need of help.

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Do: Crowdfund now, not later

Asking for help before or during your education will be more effective than asking for help after you’ve graduated, Lee said. “We see a lot of campaigns saying, ‘I’ve graduated, I’ve got $50,000 in student loans, please help me pay off my debt.’ People want to help while your education is underway.”

Do: Know the site’s special features

At Indiegogo Life, the most trending fundraisers are included in a weekly email newsletter. Leverage that opportunity by hustling on social media and with your family and friends. “We have hundreds of thousands of followers,” DiGiammarino said. “If (your campaign) gets noticed by Indiegogo Life, we’re able to promote it.”

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Do: Work up a sweat

“The more effort a campaign organizer puts into their campaign, the more they get out of it,” Little said. Maryam Atallah reached out to mosques. She contacted local businesses, who distributed her profile internally. She told her coworkers. She networked with other crowdfunders. In other words, for 10 months, she worked it. “I don’t want people to think they can just post this thing once and never think about it ever again,” she said. “It has to be an every day conversation. You have no choice.”