It’s that time of year! For high school seniors everywhere, navigating the ins and outs of financial aid can be completely confusing. So many deadlines, so many forms, so many weird acronyms that would make interesting band names (FAFSA NATION, anyone?).
In all honesty, everything can get a bit overwhelming. In this post, we’ll try to guide you through the basics of the process step-by-step.
But first of all…
Why do I need financial aid?
College is a wallet demolisher. Costs not only include tuition, but room and board, textbooks, personal and travel expenses, and well, you name it. It’s expensive! More and more students these days are graduating with enormous amounts of debt — debt that would not exist in such considerable quantities if more people had known how to maximize the amount of financial aid they were eligible for.
This is a nifty calculator for calculating how much financial aid you could qualify for based on your EFC (Estimated Family Contribution). Even if you don’t think you will qualify for much aid, you should try anyways. There really is no risk involved.
Financial aid can come in the form of institution-based financial aid, given out by the school; federal aid; and separate scholarships run by private organizations. They are all important, and they can all save you from becoming bankrupt, becoming homeless, and living in a cardboard box crying over your framed diploma.
The FAFSA, CSS, scholarship applications, Cal grants, tax return information…there are so many forms to send in! All colleges usually have a specific deadline as to when they’d like to receive these.
Before you start any of this process, it’s important to write down all of your deadlines for all of your schools. When you’re mailing material in, deadlines are usually a lot more flexible — but it’s still important to get all of your materials mailed in on time.
For a lot of colleges, these forms are due at the beginning of February. Other colleges have deadlines toward March or even April and May. If you can’t find deadline information on one of your colleges, call the Admissions Office! It won’t hurt to check.
So…what are all these forms I have to submit?
The most popular and well-known form is the infamous FAFSA.
It stands for the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” which basically speaks for itself. It’s completely free, and if you enter in all financial info and submit your application, you can receive an estimate for how much the government can give you. This application is nice because you can submit the same one to all of your schools. Within a few weeks of submitting the FAFSA, a paper Student Aid Report will be mailed to you, detailing information from your FAFSA and your Expected Family Contribution. If you also provided an email, you’ll receive a link to your results after just a few days.
Overall, the FAFSA a bit faster and easier to complete than the other major financial aid form…
The “College Scholarship Service” is not required by every school — in fact many schools only require the FAFSA! There are about 200 colleges, however, that do require the CSS Profile. These colleges include a lot of the top schools, like the Ivy Leagues. Check with your school to see if it requires this form! Otherwise, you might be missing out on a huge portion of financial aid.
Using information provided on the CSS, they will compute how much institutional aid you are eligible for. If your Estimated Family Contribution is less than the college’s tuition fees, you can qualify for need-based financial aid!
The CSS Profile is run by College Board, and because College Board hasn’t milked your wallet enough already, there is a $25 application fee and a $16 fee for every additional school. If you are applying to 10+ schools, may the Lord help your soul.
Separate financial aid documents
There are some schools like Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania which have their own separate financial aid forms as well. For Princeton, if you already submitted a CSS form, you can sync the information from CSS to Princeton’s own application form to make the process quicker. These institution-specific forms can be difficult to find. Make sure you know if any of your schools require this!
2) Cal grants
If you are applying to any school in California, make sure you have this done! Cal grants offer financial aid/grants to anyone attending a California university — and according to its website, you can receive up to $12,192 in financial aid that you don’t have to pay back. All you have to do is fill out the FAFSA and have your counselor fill out a GPA verification form. The deadline is normally early March (March 2 this year!).
3) Tax returns
This is a particularly annoying part of the financial aid process, but it’s necessary nonetheless. Lots of schools require copies of your tax returns in order to verify your imputed information. This means the entire tax return packet: all forms and schedules included, signed by both of your parents. College Board has a nifty service called IDOC through which you can send these digitally. You can also make copies and physically send it out to your colleges. I chose this latter option. Two hundred pages later, I was filled with regret.
This is another type of student aid which is awarded based off of your academic, athletic, musical, etc. achievements, rather than yoru family situation. Unfortunately, most of the elite colleges in the U.S. do not offer academic merit aid (and only offer need-based aid), so this is considerably less common.
Sometimes, you can receive an institutionally-based scholarship just by sending in your application. No extra forms needed. There are tons of other scholarships out there, however, that require a little bit more initiative on your part.
Go and look up scholarships that are being offered locally — or scholarships that pertain to your demographic, career goals, major choice, etc. Forbes has a nice list of 10 highest-paying scholarships for college. But you’re not limited to just those! Be proactive — there are tons of them out there.
This article does not cover all of your financial aid options by far, but hopefully it helped out a bit with clearing up the process! It’s tricky, but in the end it will definitely be worth it.
Don’t let the cost of college get you down. With the right financial aid, you can do anything. With the right financial aid, you too can be like Mr. Obama.
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About Maddi Lee
Maddi is currently a high school junior in southern California. She is an avid freelance writer and has been featured in multiple literary publications and anthologies. When she isn't writing, she loves traveling, doodling, and most of all, sleeping. Through her own experience and passion, she hopes to help guide fellow students through the roller coaster that is SAT and college admissions...that is, as long as she survives the journey herself!
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