Along with a computer, student software can be the most expensive purchase you make before starting college or university. That's especially the case if you're pursuing a creative discipline like photography, design, art, illustration or marketing. But the good news is that most software providers are keen to lure you in, and so provide some sort of student deal.
Note we say most, not all, though. Some tools are so established as the industry standard that its makers don't need to. Conversely, even with a discount, some student software may still be more expensive than cheaper equivalents. Don't miss our round up of the best student discounts, cheap school supplies and the best Apple Back to School deals available now for some really great savings.
To help you navigate your way through the maze that is student software, in this post we bring together some of the most important tools you may need as a student on a creative course, explain what they do, and how you can get hold of them. We'll start with paid-for student software, and then list the best free student software below that.
Student software: the best paid-for tools
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When you become a student, everyone tells you that you'll have to work harder. But actually, it's more about working smarter. Which means you'll need productivity software to plan your activities and schedule, which includes features like a calendar, email, document editing, spreadsheets and more.
Microsoft Office 365 is a serious software package that's widely used across the business world, and as a student you can get a version of it, called Office 365 Education, for free. This includes Microsoft Word for documents, Microsoft Excel for spreadsheets, Microsoft PowerPoint for presentations, Microsoft OneNote for notetaking, and Microsoft Outlook for email.
Featuring Microsoft's most popular productivity apps, you can sign online, from any device, to organise your activities wherever you are. And best of all, you get a whopping 1TB of online storage.
So popular that it's even become a verb, Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard tool for image editing and manipulation, photo retouching, graphic design, web and app prototyping and 3D modelling. With that in mind, it's something that any student of photography, illustration, graphic design, digital art, web design or marketing will find useful.
Photoshop is available as a subscription, but there's no specific student discount. At the moment, the cheapest way to buy Photoshop is as part of the Creative Cloud Photography plan, which costs $9.99 / £9.98 per month and gives you access to Photoshop CC, Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic.
There is, however, a huge student discount on an all-apps subscription to the Creative Cloud, which gives you access to Photoshop as well as 50 other creative tools, for just $19.99 / £16.24 per month for the first year.
Affinity Photo is a tool for image editing and manipulation, photo retouching and graphic design that's squarely positioned as a cheaper competitor to Photoshop. This fully-loaded photo editor is integrated across macOS, Windows and iOS and while it doesn't have exactly the same features as Photoshop, it is increasingly respected within the creative industries and is subscription-free.
Even though there's no student discount, Affinity Photo's one-off cheap price ($49.99 / £48.99 for Mac or Windows; $19.99 / £19.99 for iOS) still makes it somewhat of a bargain. So if your area of study includes photography, graphic design or marketing, it's well worth investigating.
Used to create everything from small icons to full-blown illustrations, Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for vector drawing software. Available for Mac and PC, with an iPad version on its way, it's your go-to app if you're studying art, illustration or design as a practitioner.
Adobe is currently offering a huge student discount on the Creative Cloud, which gives you access to Illustrator as well as 50 other creative apps, for just $19.99 / £16.24 per month for the first year; that's less than the cost of a subscription to Illustrator alone.
Want a vector graphics program that doesn't require a subscription? Affinity Designer, the sister app to Affinity Photo is a respected alternative to Illustrator for graphic design and illustration students, and boasts some unique features, including one million per cent zoom. Affinity Designer can be download for a one-off fee of $49.99 / £48.99 (Mac or Windows) or $19.99 / £19.99 (iOS). There's no student discount, but there is a 30-day free trial.
With a powerful and intuitive set of vector editing tools, Sketch has been the go-to tool for UI design amongst digital designers, interface designers and web designers for around a decade. And though it now has serious competition in the form of the free Adobe XD (see below), and it's still only available for Mac, anyone studying design will want to at least try it out.
Sketch usually costs $99.99 to download, but it also offers a free trial, free licences for educational institutions, and a 50% discount for students and teachers with valid ID and proof of eligibility.
Adobe InDesign is the industry standard desktop publishing software for graphic designers. It's commonly used to create posters, flyers, brochures, magazines, newspapers, presentations, books and ebooks, social media images and more, by marketing professionals and newspaper, magazine and book publishers. So it's a useful tool for anyone studying graphic design or marketing, particularly if you're interested in print publishing.
There's no student discount to subscribe to InDesign alone. So it's actually cheaper to subscribe to the Creative Cloud, which gives you access to InDesign as well as 50 other creative apps, for just $19.99 / £16.24 per month for the first year with a student discount.
An upstart in the world of desktop publishing software, Affinity Publisher was launched last year and includes some powerful features including master pages, facing page spreads, grids, tables, advanced typography, text flow and full professional print output. The tool completes a trinity of interoperable tools aimed at designers and illustrators with Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer. Like its sisters, there's no specific discount for students, but it is available for a low, one-off fee of $49.99 / £48.99.
If you’re aiming to work in the post-production end of the movie and TV industries after you graduate, you'll want to become familiar with the software that big VFX and animation studios like ILM, Pixar and Framestore use. And that's Autodesk's Maya, 3D software that comes with powerful modelling, rendering, simulation, texturing and animation tools. It doesn't come cheap but thankfully, there's a free version you can use as a student for one year, as long as you only use it for educational and not commercial projects. So why wouldn't you?
The sister to Autodesk's Maya, 3DS Max is a powerful 3D modeling and animation software for 3D modelling, animation, rendering and visualisation. As such, it's a must-have for anyone studying game design, animation, VFX, architectural visualisation, or VR experiences. Again, students can download it for free for use in their studies, as long as the work you produce is not commercially exploited. Also make sure you check out our 3ds Max tutorials.
Cinema 4D is a professional 3D software package with a relatively small learning curve, a lively user community and a wealth of Cinema 4D tutorials online, making it popular with motion graphics and animation students. Students can get a free Education Licence for Cinema 4D, as long as you can provide provide proof of enrollment, which may include a student ID, enrollment certificate, class schedule) or employment (teacher ID, proof of class schedule, valid employment verification).
After Effects is the industry-standard software for motion graphics, compositing and VFX. Although it's occasionally used to create entire movies, it's more often used for more modest sequences such as TV show titles or animated commercials: exactly the sort of work graphic design and animation students are likely to be working on, in fact.
As with the other Adobe software on this list, there's no student discount on After Effects. But there is a huge 60-65% student discount on the Creative Cloud, which includes After Effects as well as 50 other creative apps, for just $19.99 / £16.24 per month for the first year.
Adobe's Premiere Pro is one of the best video editing software packages on the market, with simple layout and range of impressive features. Used to create professional content for film, TV and the web, it supports 360 VR content, 4K and HDR video, and comes with some very useful collaboration features.
As with the other Adobe software on this list, there's no student discount on a Premiere Pro subscription. But you can making a big saving on the Creative Cloud all-apps subscription, which gives you access to Premiere Pro as well as 50 other creative apps, for just $19.99 / £16.24 per month for the first year.
Apple's video editing software, Final Cut Pro X, combines video editing with powerful media organisation and impressive performance to let you create your content quickly and efficiently. As such it offers a robust alternative to Premiere Pro, above, that's subscription-free.
Optimised for macOS and the latest Mac hardware, it's a good option for anyone tied into Apple's ecosystem, although it's not actually available for Windows. Currently retailing at $299 / £299, there's no student discount on Final Cut Pro X, but there currently is a generous 90-day free trial.
Student software: the best free tools
When it comes to organising your life, your work, your schedule and more as a student, Google Drive has pretty much everything you could need for free. It works on any device with an internet connection, as it's based in the browser, and includes a number of brilliant tools.
Google Docs is a very capable document editor, and can save your work in a variety of proprietary formats, including Microsoft Word and PDF. Google Sheets allows you to create spreadsheets, while Google Slides is there for your presentations. You can store up to 15GB of images, documents and other files for free. You can easily share all this with teachers and students you're collaborating with, and add comments in real time. And with Google's awe-inspiring search technology, you'll be able to find everything quickly and easily.
If you're studying digital design or web design, you need to know about Adobe XD. Adobe's digital prototyping tool has two advantages over its main rival, Sketch. Firstly, it's available for Windows as well as Mac. And secondly, the basic version is free forever, with no commitment.
This starter version gives you unlimited local documents, access to a limited number of fonts and 2GB of cloud storage. And until October 2020, you will also get unlimited editors, unlimited shared documents and unlimited shared links. So it's really a no-brainer to download it and at least give it a try.
If you're taking design as your main area of study, you'll probably need to buy some professional software, such as Photoshop and Illustrator. But if you're studying a related discipline, such as marketing, and just need to do the odd bit of design work, then Canva is a free and very capable alternative. This browser-based app is easy to pick up and use, even if you don't have any design training, and can be used to make posters, flyers, social media images and more.
Even within the world of digital art, not a lot of people seem to know about Krita. Which is a shame, because this free and open source tool is among the best software for digital artists around. It's been purposely made by artists who want to see affordable art tools for everyone, and is suitable for creating concept art, texture and matte paintings, illustrations and comic art. Check out our list of the best Krita tutorials to learn more.
Filmmaking students will need something more powerful, like Premiere Pro. But if you need to do a spot of video editing as part of another course, then Adobe has a free alternative for you, in the shape of Premiere Rush.
This cross-platform tool has all the main tools and export settings of the paid-for app, and a simpler, intuitive layout that makes it much easier for non-techie students to pick up and use.
You're not a photography student, but you need to make some simple edits to an image as part of your course. Crop, resize, remove red-eye, that kind of thing. In that case, you don't want to bother with something as expensive and complex as Photoshop; there are plenty of free tools for doing basic tasks like that.
We like Pixlr best, as it's free, reliable, based in the browser, and has more than 600 effects, overlays and borders. Its user interface is easy to use, and there are also iOS and Android available. Alternatively, check out one of these Photoshop alternatives instead.