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How to Apply for Financial Aid

a student loan application

Here is a look at the key steps to getting financial aid.

If you want the best financial aid—lots of free or low-cost money for college—there's more to it than simply turning in your aid applications.

1. Talk to your parents about applying for financial aid

It is critical that you understand how your family's income and financial assets might impact your financial aid awards. For example, savings in your name will reduce your eligibility for aid much more than assets owned by your parents.

2. Get familiar with aid applications

Start by getting to know the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) which all colleges use to determine federal aid. If you plan to apply to private colleges, review the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE as well. And be sure to find out how to apply for aid offered by your state.

3. Get an idea of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

Your Expected Family Contribution or EFC is an official estimate of your family's ability to contribute to your college education. Your EFC may or may not seem fair to you, but it is based on a strict formula. The sooner you know your EFC, the sooner your family can take steps to reduce it. Use the EFC Calculator to get an idea of your family's EFC.

4. Get ready to apply for scholarships

Do you have an outstanding skill, a strong connection to an ethnic heritage, a specific career interest, or stellar academic performance? Your personal achievements and qualities may make you eligible for scholarships, but the competition is keen. Start early to build your strengths and prepare your resume. Use the Scholarship Finder to research scholarships and their requirements.

5. Find out deadlines for financial aid forms

Colleges have different deadlines for the FAFSA and other aid forms. Develop a system for keeping track of the various deadlines. Some students keep separate folders for each school. Others use calendars or spreadsheets.

6. File your aid applications early

Filing early puts you near the front of the line to receive aid. Most colleges calculate financial aid awards using information from your FAFSA, so plan to complete it as soon as possible after it becomes available on October 1. If a college also requires the PROFILE, you should file it at the same time as the FAFSA.

7. Submit supplemental forms and documents

Many colleges require you to complete forms in addition to the FAFSA. These forms can be much more nosy. For example, they may ask how much equity your parents have in their home, the amount of assets held by a divorced parent, and how much college money is held by your grandparents. And their deadlines may be different than the FAFSA deadline.

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