Preparing to Apply for Financial Aid

Once you decide to submit an application to attend a college or university that offers need-based financial aid, you’ll have the option of applying for financial aid. Why do you “apply” for financial aid, instead of requesting it? It’s because schools collect a lot of important information that you and your family provide in the application to determine how much support you will need, and then make you an offer of financial support.

It’s important to keep an eye on deadlines when considering financial aid. Some schools allow you to apply for aid at any point, while other schools have cutoff dates for each academic year. That means that to be considered for aid in a given year, you must submit all the required materials by the deadline. This information can be found on your chosen school’s financial aid website.

A special feature of some selective schools is that they pledge to meet 100% of their students’ demonstrated financial need. The way you “demonstrate” financial need is by submitting standardized forms that give colleges and universities a snapshot of your family’s financial situation. In looking into how to apply for financial aid, you’ll encounter the following forms and terms:

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid): This is an important part of any financial aid application. The FAFSA is offered for free by the US Department of Education and can be filled out online. Depending on how your family’s income taxes are filed, there are options to import this tax information directly into the FAFSA, saving you time. Remember, the FAFSA has “free” in the name, so you shouldn’t be paying people to fill this out! Most selective schools will also ask for a copy of your parent’s most recent tax returns.

The CSS Profile: Many schools require the CSS Profile, which is offered by the College Board, the same people who make the SAT. This document collects more in-depth information about your family’s finances. Some schools use a form specific to their school instead of the CSS Profile to supplement the FAFSA.

Expected Family Contribution: By collecting this information, schools get a picture of your family’s assets, including your parents’ income, your cost of housing, how many children your parents are supporting, and any investments you may have made. Using this information, schools are able to determine how much you and your family are able to contribute towards your education. This amount is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The difference between the total cost and the EFC is filled in with a financial aid award that could include loans, college scholarships, grants, outside awards, and more. This may seem like a complicated process, but only by collecting a lot of information can schools ensure they offer each student a fair and accurate financial aid package.

When you’ve been admitted to a school, they want to work with you to ensure that you’ll be able to attend without placing undue financial burdens on your family. If you’re unable to afford attending a school based on the aid award you’ve been offered, many schools offer the option of appealing a financial aid award. It’s possible there are expenses your family is facing that weren’t taken into account when your award was calculated, or perhaps your circumstances have changed. If you think this might be the case, reach out to the school’s aid office, or your admissions representative, to find out what you can do.

The nature of a need-based financial aid package means that it will be adjusted depending on your family’s changing circumstances, which is why schools ask that you re-apply for aid every year. Unless one of your parents or guardians suddenly starts earning a lot more income, or in the unfortunate circumstance they suddenly lose a portion of their income, it is likely that your financial aid award will be similar year-to-year.

To learn more about financial aid, read Financing Your Education.

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