Applying for financial aid can save you money on your college education. Still, people don't necessarily relish this opportunity. Why? Well, it's probably because they've heard some not-so-nice things about the financial aid application process: it's tough, it's confusing, and it takes a long time.
However, when you know what you're getting into, it's easy to get aid for school—and it takes just five steps to do so. Here's what you need to do.
1. Complete The Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
Some people skip the FAFSA because they think their income is not low enough to get "financial aid." Not true! Even if you are ineligible for need-based aid, such as a Pell grant or work-study, the FAFSA is still the gateway to:
- Stafford loans.
- State grants based on need or merit.
- Most school-based aid based on need or merit.
The FAFSA helps schools determine the financial aid packages they will offer you. While other scholarships may have their own process, the FAFSA is really the first place to start. You can begin the filing process on October 1 before the upcoming school year.
Though you can file the FAFSA on paper, it is much easier to do online. See our guide to filling it out for more information on what you can expect. Also, don't worry if your FAFSA is selected for verification—this secondary procedure just confirms certain information on your application.
2. Receive Your Student Aid Report (SAR) And Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
About 2 to 4 weeks after you submit your FAFSA online (you'll have to wait a few extra weeks if you send the paper form), you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) by mail or email. The SAR provides you with your EFC, which is the amount your family is expected to spend on your education; that amount could be through savings, Parent PLUS loans, private loans, or scholarships.
If the EFC seems too high, double-check your SAR to make sure you filled out the FAFSA correctly. Contact your financial aid office if there are extenuating circumstances or other problems.
3. Complete Additional Forms
Find out if the schools you are applying to require additional forms. Several private schools, for example, may require an application called the CSS/Financial Aid Profile or another institutional financial aid form. Each school is different, so you'll need to check with each one.
These additional forms will determine your eligibility for other types of aid, such as institutional grants and scholarships that the school awards.
4. Receive Award Letter
You will receive a financial aid award letter from each school that you are accepted to if you listed that school on your FAFSA. This letter will detail the aid the school is offering to help cover your college expenses
Note: You only get an award letter from schools that you listed on the FAFSA. You can always make a correction to add (or remove) schools at any time—but you won't get an award letter unless you add the school to the FAFSA.
It is important you evaluate the award that each school offers you. Take into account the cost of every school compared to the aid that you receive. Grants and scholarships are free money, loans need to be paid back (most will accrue interest), and work-study is an offer to apply for work at the college part time for up to a specific dollar amount. Money you earn via work-study won't come directly off your bill, but you can use it to help pay your expenses.
You can also decline any part of your award—and you should never borrow more than you need. If you choose to decline any part of your award, it is your responsibility to fill the gap between the cost of attendance and your financial aid award. Contact the financial aid office to appeal your award letter if you think your financial situation has changed since you completed your FAFSA or if there are extenuating circumstances that the FAFSA did not consider.
5. Accept Award
Once you've decided which college you want to attend, follow the instructions on that school's award letter to accept the financial aid package by its deadline.
That's it! If you have questions while completing these steps, reach out to your financial aid office—that's what they're there for.