How to Navigate the College Financial Aid System

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Financial Aid Money GrabApplying for financial aid can be an overwhelming and stressful task. There are many steps involved and some of the steps can be rather complex. It is important to remember, however, that the financial aid system has been set up to help you. With a little patience, the system can really pay off in the end. This article will give you an overview of the steps in the financial aid process and will give you a little bit of advice along the way.

1. File Your Taxes for the Previous Year
Although this step is not a requirement to apply for financial aid, it will make the process much easier. You will use the documents to fill out the FAFSA form later. If you do not file your taxes before applying, you will have to use estimates on your forms instead of definite figures, which is a less optimal choice. Since taxes are due in about a month, now’s a good time to them anyway!

2. Request a Federal Student Aid PIN
The Federal Student Aid PIN will allow you to fill out your FAFSA on the web, which is always better than filing out a paper application and mailing it in. It will serve as a unique identification number and signature for your application. To request a pin, visit the Federal Student Aid PIN website. If you recently applied but haven’t received your PIN, you can check your PIN status here.

3. Submit the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid can be filled out anytime between January 1st and June 30th of the following year. However, the earlier you apply the better. Many state and college financial aid rewards have earlier deadlines and the funds are only available on a first come first serve basis. Though the FAFSA can be filled out in paper format, the fastest and easiest way to fill it out is on the web. The FAFSA website provides a worksheet for you to fill out before submitting the actual FAFSA. This worksheet will allow you to determine the answers to the questions the FAFSA will ask you beforehand. Then, you can use those answers when you fill out the actual FAFSA form online. Make sure to indicate on the form where you want the FAFSA to be sent. For more information about the FAFSA, watch this brief 5-minute video about FAFSA.

4. Receive Your SAR
After you have submitted the FAFSA, you will be sent a Student Aid Report. This report will tell you your eligibility status for federal student aid and will tell you your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is not the amount of money your parents are expected to spend on your education. Instead, it is an index of how much you are in need of financial aid. To estimate how much your EFC will be before submitting the FAFSA, use an online EFC calculator such as this one.

5. Complete Supplemental Forms if Necessary
Some schools require supplemental financial aid forms such as the CSS Profile. Check with your school’s financial aid office to determine if this is necessary.

6. Complete Your School’s Financial Aid Application
In addition to the FAFSA, you will need to complete the financial aid application for your college. During this process, it may be beneficial to meet with a financial aid counselor at your school. He will be able to answer any questions you may have and he may be able to help you receive the most financial aid your school can offer.

7. Verify If Necessary
In some instances, you may be asked to send in tax documents to verify the information you put in your financial aid application. Although this step can be tedious, it is necessary for receiving financial aid.

8. Receive Your Award Package
After receiving your application, your school will determine how much financial aid your are eligible for and will send you an award package. Your package could include several different forms of financial aid. Grants and scholarships are forms of financial aid that do not need to be repaid. Loans on the other hand will need to be repaid, often with interest. Finally, work study awards provide you with part-time employment to fund a portion of your college education. For more details on the types of financial aid, see this site and use the Federal Student Aid Programs link on the left side of the page. Here’s what a sample award package looks like.

By following these steps, you can navigate your way through the financial aid system. If you have trouble along the way you can call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID. You can also contact your school’s financial aid office. Good luck applying!

(Photo: sgw)

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11 Responses to “How to Navigate the College Financial Aid System”

  1. This is a really great walk-through! I had to do everything myself when I started college, so it was a real challenge the first year. But you get used to it. The hardest part ended up being trying to convince my mom to do her taxes early every year!

  2. MFallon says:

    The 2009-2010 federal student aid application asks 137 income, asset, and dependency questions, and can be daunting. You can answer some questions incorrectly and still have your application approved but receive a smaller aid award. Other inaccuracies can cause rejection, which in the first-come, first-served world of student aid means that less aid will be available when your application is finally considered.

    If taking the do-it-yourself route for preparing the aid application isn’t for you, the government authorizes the use of paid professional FAFSA preparers to help you answer the questions.

    Choose one who explains the “do-it-yourself and file for free option,” has a A+ Better Business Bureau rating, has high client ratings, charges modest fees, and not only checks your answers with a computer program but also double-checks each answer personally to ensure accuracy.

    • For readers getting prepared to do the FAFSA for the first time, DO NOT click on MFALLON’s link(screen name).

      It takes you to, who will gladly prepare your FAFSA and submit it for you. However, they charge you around $85 and do not always do you any favors and are known(those in financial aid offices will tell you) to mess up the numbers and hurt your chances to maximizing your access to aid.

      Go to The process is pretty straight forward but if you ever have questions, just drop a call to your local financial aid office. they are usually more than glad to assist…and for free…

      • MFallon says:

        There’s no way getting help from a professional FAFSA preparer messes up the numbers or hurts your chances of aid. Just like filing income taxes with the help of a tax consultant to maximize your return, good FAFSA preparers can help you become eligible for the most aid possible. One value offers is a 450-point error check by computer and a person to re-read all your answers because you can answer questions incorrectly yourself and have your app approved by the Dept. of Education – but the mistake will lower your student aid award. At least one-third of the people who use our online service saw their expected family contribution decrease a lot which made them eligible for more aid.

  3. Katie W says:

    Thanks for the great info!

  4. Eric N. says:

    Great walkthrough. Pretty much what I had to do! Seek outside scholarships if you can. It’ll pay off (literally). 🙂

  5. MFallon says:

    Did you know that the US government authorizes 2 options for preparing your federal student aid application? You can do it yourself and file for free on the Dept. of Education Web site OR get professional help from a paid FAFSA preparer. The law that authorizes the options is the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.

    One of the big “gotchas” of doing the FAFSA yourself is making an error that cannot be detected by the Dept. of Education’s computer program. By doing the FAFSA yourself, you can answer some questions incorrectly and still have your application approved but receive a smaller aid award.

    Other inaccuracies can cause rejection, which in the first-come, first-served world of student aid means that less aid will be available when your application is finally considered.

    Like tax consultants help people maximize their income tax refund, professional FAFSA preparers can help people become eligible for the most aid possible.

    With the average student aid award of $9,500 at stake, help from a professional could relieve some of the stress of finding money for college.

  6. thomas says:

    #9. Find closest bar that takes fake ID and get hammered.

  7. hatcco01 says:

    FAFSA stands for FREE Application for Federal Student Aid, and I strongly believe you shouldn’t pay anyone to help with it! There are many no-cost ways to get help with the FAFSA, such as your high school guidance counselor, college financial aid officer, and many non-profit organizations, as well as websites such as

  8. saladdin says:

    If you can do taxes then you can fill this out.


  9. MFallon says:

    High school seniors don’t have a college counselor to turn to because they aren’t in college, and the ratio of high school counselors to students is high 350 to 1 on average (sometimes 1,000 to 1 in big cities). Not everyone wants no help. While College Goal Sunday is a great idea – often it’s only 1 night in a local area. Getting professional help for a modest fee to make you eligible for the most aid possible is a good value. It’s good both options exist.

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