Usually, when people hear the term “financial aid” they think “federal government,” and that’s for a good reason—it’s the first place you should look. And while the whole process might seem intimidating, remember that millions of families successfully apply for financial aid each year.
You stand the best chance of getting federal financial aid if you start early, when you first start applying to colleges. We recommend applying after your family fills out their taxes for the previous year.
Your first stop in federal financial aid should be filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA); their site is in our Related Links section to the right. The site even offers the FAFSA4casterSM to give you a quick idea of your eligibility for financial aid and grants, plus it reduces the actual application time. Even if you’re dead positive you won’t qualify, fill it out anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results, and it will make it easier for you to apply for other aid.
Remember, the application isn’t a simple one and that any mistake could cost you – big time. So, support your parents any way you can through the application process.
After applying for the FAFSA, don’t stop there. You’ve got plenty of other options out there for financial aid.
Keep in mind that the best help is free. There are plenty of companies out there that offer to help you find financial aid – at a price. Don’t fall for it. Why bother, when there are dozens of organizations and sites that will help you for free?
After you’ve been accepted to your colleges of choice (Congratulations!) and have your financial aid offers nailed down, the hard part is only halfway over. Now, you need to sit down and determine what choice is best for you.
Put it all down on paper or a spreadsheet on your computer and do the math. What award letters did you get and from what colleges? What’s the actual cost of the school, including room and board? Did you get scholarships, grants, tuition discounts or loans? A scholarship or grant is better than any loan. And if you have to use a loan, a subsidized loan is the way to go—they pay the interest for you as long as you’re in school. Use this award letter calculator to help you decide.
So, you’ve picked a college, crunched the numbers and you still end up a little short. There are a few ways to fill in the gaps:
All of this detective work for scholarships and filling out forms is worth it in the end. Remember, a college degree is a solid investment in your future. Just don’t forget to remind your parents of that as they trudge through all the paperwork!