Forms and Deadlines
No matter what else you do to secure financial aid, first visit the financial aid office or website of the colleges you’re applying to. It’s critical that you know which forms each school requires. It’s likely they’ll use common forms, such as the FAFSA and/or the CSS/PROFILE (see below), but they may also have unique forms specific to their school. Make sure you know the deadline for each form and that you allow yourself (and/or your parents) enough time to produce the information needed for these forms (such as income tax information). Finally, make sure that you are using the most up-to-date version of the forms – you’d be surprised at how many students have their applications rejected because they filled out the form from the wrong year.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (known affectionately as FAFSA) is required if you want to be considered for any type of federally-funded financial aid, such as the Pell Grant, Perkins Loan, Stafford Loan and Work-Study. It must be submitted every year that you want aid. In addition to making you eligible for federal programs, the FAFSA is usually required by most university, institutional, state, and local financial aid programs. So, put simply: you have to fill this form out. There is no charge for submitting this form, and it can be found online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
You should submit the FAFSA as soon as possible, but not before January 1st. If you try submitting it before January 1st, it won’t be processed and you'll have to submit it again some time later. The reason for this is because the form requires financial information from the prior tax year in order to calculate eligibility for the upcoming award year. Technically, people shouldn’t know this information until the calendar year finishes. Simple enough. But, now here’s where it gets tricky – don’t wait until you and/or your parents have filed your income tax returns with the IRS. You will most likely have waited too long. To meet the deadlines for most states, you should submit the FAFSA no later than March 1st, or ideally by February 15th. Some schools, however, may have their own deadline requirements for the FAFSA (earlier than federal and/or state deadlines) in order to be considered for institutional aid programs. And, students from Michigan should pay special attention to that state’s deadlines, which are usually in February.
So, in effect, you are expected to provide accurate income tax return data before you would have normally submitted your tax returns to the IRS. Everybody complains about this. You won’t be the only one who finds this strange and inconvenient. Your choices are simple: (1) fill out your tax returns early, or (2) estimate your income - you'll have a chance to correct errors later. For most people, their December pay stubs will report total income for the year, which can be used to help form an estimate.
CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE
In addition to the FAFSA, if you go to a private school or even some public schools, you may also be asked to fill out the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form to determine your eligibility for non-government financial aid, such as the institution's own grants, loans and scholarships. This form is administered by the College Scholarship Service (CSS), a financial aid division of The College Board. Unlike the FAFSA, this form can be submitted before January 1st and there is no federal or state deadline; the deadline is set by each individual school. Also unlike the FAFSA, this form isn’t free. The College Board charges a $5.00 registration fee as well as an $18.00 per-college processing fee. Currently, there are about 350 schools that require this form (most are private). To register and complete the online form, visit The College Board.
If you aren’t sick of forms by the time you finish filling out the FAFSA and/or the CSS/PROFILE, you probably will be after you get through any of the other unique forms that might be required by the schools you apply to. Not all schools have these supplemental forms, but many do. The good news is that no matter how many schools you apply to, you’ll only need to submit the FAFSA and/or the CSS/PROFILE once. Most major colleges also offer their financial aid application forms online to help make the filing process easier. Some private companies have also emerged with common online applications that can be used for applying to multiple schools (see College Resources). Pay attention to the deadlines for these supplemental forms, as their deadlines sometimes vary from the deadline for the FAFSA and/or CSS/PROFILE. Also, some schools may require that forms by mailed in as opposed to simply being filled out online. These schools may require that applications be received by a certain date or postmarked by a certain date – there is a difference and you should know which one it is. If you have to mail in an application, send the form by certified mail with the United Stated Postal Service, return receipt requested.
Search and Apply for Scholarships
The financial aid application process for some schools may automatically make you eligible for several institutional scholarships, but there are thousands of private sector scholarships available to those who can find them and apply for them. Most of these scholarships have very specific qualification requirements ranging from ethnicity to field-of-study, but there are numerous online sites that can help you find awards that match your profile. Most importantly, these awards are usually not awarded on the basis of financial need, meaning that anyone can apply for them who can otherwise meet their specific (and often esoteric) criteria. However, because you must report any private sector scholarships you receive to your school, the amount you are awarded is usually reduced from your total financial aid package. For more information on institutional and/or private sector scholarships, including how to find them and how to avoid scams, please refer to our article on Scholarships.
Review the SAR
Within four to six weeks of submitting the FAFSA (or two to three weeks if you submitted it online), you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). If you find any errors in your data, make the corrections and return the form as soon as possible so that the colleges you applied to receive the correct information. If you don’t think the errors can be processed and corrected in time, call the school's financial aid administrator to ask how you should make corrections.
Some applicants may be selected for verification – this will be indicated clearly on your SAR. If you are selected for verification, be sure to follow the instructions carefully, submitting tax returns and other documents, as appropriate, to your school’s financial aid office.
Make sure to look for the government’s figure for Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is the amount of money your family will be expected to contribute to your education. The EFC is computed as the difference between the school's Cost of Attendance (COA) and your Financial Need. Or put another way, Financial Need = COA – EFC. Note: The Cost of Attendance (COA) includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies, travel, and personal expenses. The schools you apply to will try to meet this need through a financial aid package that combines aid from federal, state, school, and private sources with loans and student employment.
Review the CSS/PROFILE acknowledgement
If you submitted the CSS/PROFILE, you should receive an acknowledgement once it’s been processed. Review the confirmation to make sure that the data matches the information you provided. If you need to make changes or corrections to the CSS/PROFILE data, submit the changes directly to the appropriate college financial aid offices. Also, make sure to review the list of colleges and programs that will be receiving the CSS/PROFILE data; you can, at this point, add additional colleges if you wish.
Financial Aid Package and Acceptance
When you receive an acceptance letter from the college(s) you apply to, it will usually also contain a “Financial Aid Package,” provided you’ve met your deadlines. This is an offer of aid that combines different forms and sources of aid including grants, scholarships, loans and work study. It is important to remember that you may be eligible for other types of aid or financing such as scholarships that you might apply for directly (which, by the way, need to be reported to your school and are deducted from your Financial Need) or commercial education loans taken out by you or your parents.
Be sure to take notice of the deadline for accepting all or any part of the financial aid package. Sadly, many students each year lose portions of their financial aid package simply by not accepting them in time.