It’s that time of the year again: you’re sitting tight, waiting for those admission letters to roll in, and your worries start to shift from whether or not you’ve been accepted into the college of your dreams to whether or not you can afford to attend in the first place. Financial buzzwords flit around your brain — FAFSA! EFC! Grants! Loans! — and you feel your stomach begin to sink. But don’t let the process intimidate you. We can help you untangle the complexities of financial aid with these ten tips.
1. Plan to apply for FAFSA every year—even if you don’t expect to receive aid.
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, meaning that it will cost you nothing (zero!) to apply for federal aid. Most colleges and universities go through FAFSA to compile financial aid packages, comprised of grants, loans and work-study programs. FAFSA profiles do expire, so remember to fill out a new one at the beginning of each year. (Don’t worry — if you’ve filled out an application in the past, much of your information will be saved so you don’t have to start all over.) And don’t be discouraged if you receive less aid than you expected your first year, because many scholarship opportunities become available when you become an upperclassman.2. Timing matters.
You can submit your FAFSA application as early as January 1st for the 2014-2015 academic year. Applications are accepted through June 30. State and school deadlines may be different, so keep track of those as well. Federal aid offices process awards in the order applications are received, so be sure to apply as soon as possible. The longer you wait to apply, the less aid you may receive, simply because there won’t be enough to go around. With college tuition on the rise and financial aid in huge demand, this step is crucial — so don’t slack off!3. Be very, very, very detailed. Get it right the first time.
Don’t let careless mistakes affect your financial aid future – pay close attention to your personal details as you fill out the FAFSA application. It can be painful and time-consuming to submit corrections after the records have already been set. Check for any spelling errors, and for any errors in your name, address or other personal information. Also, enter in zeros (type in “0”) if that is the correct answer or if the question does not apply to you, rather than leaving any sections blank. This will help financial aid officers process your application quickly, which can in turn produce a better aid package.4. Family benefits and affiliations can make a big difference.
You’ve impressed schools and programs with all of your achievements, but have you also considered your family’s? Whether it be employers, unions, the military or clubs, professional affiliations in the family often provide opportunities for additional aid. Ask your family for more details, and do some research on what you discover. Remember: your higher education can be a family effort.5. Loans should come last.
Know the distinction between scholarships, grants and loans. Scholarships and grants are “free money” — they are the investments that governments or institutions have made into your education and do not require repayment, making them a great resource for paying off your tuition. Loans, on the other hand, need to be paid back, usually with interest. Loans can be helpful if you have insufficient funding from scholarships and grants, but make sure you understand and agree to the full conditions before accepting any loans – read the fine print!6. Plan on talking to someone in person.
With most applications today being online, it’s easy to punch in the numbers and wait for results; but don’t forget that on the other side, there is always someone accounting for the aid that you receive. Take the time to personally contact a financial aid counselor via email, phone or even in person. Financial aid officers are there to answer questions and clear up confusion, but also to provide insight on how to receive the full aid you are eligible for, perhaps in ways you weren’t even aware of. Talk to a professional and get advice to make the decisions that best fit your needs.7. Think beyond the form: explain personal circumstances in detail.
As previously stated, financial officers are more inclined to make exceptions for students under extreme situations so long as they are aware of your situation in the first place. If your family is undergoing circumstances that make it especially difficult to support tuition costs, write a supplementary letter explaining the details to your school’s financial aid office. Whether it’s a personal loss, sudden unemployment or high medical bills, most colleges and universities will take your circumstances under review when considering aid.8. Be ready to compare packages and shop around.
When you finally receive your financial aid package, be ready to distinguish what you’ve actually received and what you were originally eligible for. This gap in financial aid is called the “shortfall,” and it often takes place because many schools suffer from tight financial budgets. If you simply accept the aid package as is, you will be the one responsible to make up this “shortfall” out of pocket — in addition to the EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) you’ve already pledged to cover. However, you can also negotiate your financial aid package with the school, if for example your financial situation has drastically changed since you’ve applied, or if a number of other schools have offered significantly better packages. If you’re requesting the financial aid office to reconsider your package, make sure to be polite: your ability to be persuasive without being pushy will make all the difference.9. Consider your options: pick between schools, and maybe even gap years.
Different colleges will provide different financial aid packages, so be ready to consider financial aid a big factor in choosing the school to attend. In addition to requesting negotiations on your financial aid package, you can also consider attending a smaller, up-and-coming school that offers a quality education. These lesser-known schools may offer great financial opportunities to attract elite students, so take each package into consideration before you decide for sure. You can also consider taking a gap year before entering college to give yourself an opportunity to work and/or travel, which can be especially helpful for parents to save up a little bit more, and can also teach you to deal with real-life costs and expenses.10. Cheating is a big deal.
Most importantly: never, ever try to claim more financial aid than you’re eligible for by reporting a lower income, or by failing to report assets. This is a form of government fraud and it’s simply not worth the cost. Considering that most colleges and universities work with the Department of Education and the IRS to verify the financial information you post on your FAFSA, you’re more than likely to lose more money than you save — along with the opportunity to earn a great education.Final Word
Figuring out financial aid might seem like an insurmountable task, but don’t give up just yet. Use these tips to get organized and make the process run smoothly. And be sure to check to see if we have resources to help with your college expenses.
Looking for additional help? Download our College and Financial Aid Application Checklist. This handy calendar can help you stay organized while you navigate the FAFSA and college application process.
Sara Collins, NerdWallet