- Bargaineering - http://www.bargaineering.com/articles -

How to Navigate the College Financial Aid System

Applying 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 [3]. If you recently applied but haven’t received your PIN, you can check your PIN status here [4].

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 [5] 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 [6].

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 [7].

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 [8] and use the Federal Student Aid Programs link on the left side of the page. Here’s what a sample award package looks like [9].

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 [10])