Although it might seem daunting at first, applying for financial aid doesn't have to be difficult. It just takes a little planning and organization to make it a less stressful process. These useful tips will help to make applying for financial aid, at any school, a more pleasant experience.
(The first nine tips were prepared by the College Board. To view more general information concerning financial aid and preparing for college, visit the College Board website.)
- Apply early. Don't wait until you get a college acceptance letter to apply for aid, or chances are most grants and scholarships will be gone. If you're applying to college early, your financial aid deadlines will also be early -- usually in October or November. If you're applying regular decision, your financial aid deadlines usually fall in February.
- Figure out what forms you need to complete. Most colleges require you to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to apply for federal and state aid. Some colleges have their own institutional forms, in addition to the FAFSA. Some colleges require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® to apply for non-federal aid.
- Keep on track of deadlines and details. Missing a financial aid deadline can jeopardize your eligibility. Save time by gathering all of the financial records you'll need (from income tax returns to mortgage information) before you and your family dive into your forms.
- Gather the appropriate federal income tax returns. Income information that you report on your tax returns (IRS forms 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ) is used on financial aid applications.
- Describe any unusual circumstances that might affect your family's ability to pay for college. If you believe that there are circumstances that aren't reflected on the financial aid forms, contact the college financial aid office directly.
- Complete all forms accurately, completely, and legibly. Inaccurate, incorrect, or missing information can cause delays in processing your applications.
- Provide all the information requested on the forms. For instance, if your answer is zero, enter a zero. Don't just leave the question blank. This will speed review of your application.
- Be consistent on all forms. Use the same name on all financial aid forms. In order to complete your file and assess your eligibility, colleges and the federal government will need to match up your records from several sources. Inconsistencies will slow the process.
- Keep copies of each form. Whether you're completing the application on paper or online, keep a copy of each form for your records. You may need to refer to a particular form if the college asks for additional information.
- Follow through. After you submit your forms, sort carefully through any financial aid material you receive in the mail, such as confirmations or requests for additional information. If additional information is needed, send it as soon as possible. If you find errors, address them quickly. When it comes to applying for aid, time is money. As deadlines near, be sure to contact the office to confirm that your information has been received. Access to financial aid at some schools may be dependent on meeting various deadlines.
- Apply for financial aid every year. This is important whether you want to renew previous aid or try again to qualify. Even if you don't qualify one year, there is a chance you will the next, either because of increased tuition and fees or changed family circumstances, such as divorce or a sibling beginning college. Keep in mind that some schools may require that you apply for financial aid at the same time you apply for admission in order to be considered for institutional funds. At an institution with such a policy, you still may apply for federal and state assistance each year.
- Get the student Involved. Parents should actively encourage student involvement in the financial aid process. A student's understanding of how their educational costs will affect the entire family's finances will allow families to make decisions together. Students also need to take responsibility for completing forms and insuring deadlines are met. Schools often contact the student directly during the school year. Failure to respond to certain requests can result in delay of funds and/or cancellation of certain awards.