A Step-by-Step Guide
to Applying for Federal Financial Aid
Applying for Federal Financial Aid can certainly be overwhelming, stressful, and confusing. With a little guidance, however, you'll find that the process is simpler than it may appear.
Know Your Deadlines
Most of the stress of applying for financial aid comes from waiting until the last minute. It's an involved process, and if you don't give yourself enough time, it can be completely overwhelming. Do your research, find out the deadlines for any form you need to complete, and get started early.
The deadline for the Federal FAFSA form is typically at the end of June for a given school year. In other words, the deadline for the 2013-2014 school year will typically be at the end of June 2014.
Deadlines for aid from the state, however, usually come much earlier. If you are applying for aid from the state, you'll need to fill out forms in addition to your federal paperwork.
Scholarships or other programs which are unique to your college or university will likely have their own unique deadlines. Many schools use the CSS Profile Form for private scholarships and aid.
Double-check the deadlines for all the kinds of aid you're applying for. The federal deadlines can be found on the application deadline page of the Department of Education's website.
There's a lot of paperwork involved in the financial aid application process, and it's crucial that you don't lose any of it. A great way to keep your papers organized is to buy an accordion-style file folder. Use this folder to store your completed FAFSA forms, loan agreements, personal financial documents, etc. Also, it's a really smart idea to print out every financial aid-related email you send or receive, as well as the online forms you fill out. That way, you'll have a hard copy in case your computer crashes, or in case you need to dispute any terms for any reason.
Your file folder will be full of very sensitive information (Social Security number, tax returns, personal information, etc.), and should be treated accordingly. Keep it in a very safe place. Doing otherwise is basically asking for your identity to get stolen.
Get Your FAFSA PIN Number
The Department of Education assigns each student a unique PIN number, which you must have in order to electronically "sign" your online FAFSA application. This PIN number is also necessary for accessing your account and information.
Make sure you apply for this PIN far ahead of time. It may take only 1-3 days to receive your PIN number, but it may take a fair amount longer if the system is overloaded, or if your information isn't correctly filled out. If you wait until the last minute to apply for your PIN, you could very well miss the submission deadline.
You'll use this PIN number throughout your entire college career, so keep it safe and never share it! You can create your FAFSA PIN number at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/fsaid.
Fill Out and Submit the FAFSA Form
Many people find the FAFSA form to be quite confusing. This is largely due to the fact that the FAFSA form asks for information from your tax return, and if you're one of the many people who hire someone else to complete your tax return, this information may be unfamiliar to you.
Before you begin filling out the form, go through a blank copy of the form and see if there are any fields, categories, or terms which you don't understand. If you do find some confusing parts, contact your tax preparer ahead of time for some clarification. Getting answers to all your questions may take some time, so it's important that you get started well before the deadline.
Before starting to fill out the online form, make sure you have you've completed the most recent year's tax return. You'll need a lot of information from your return to complete the FAFSA form.
Check Online for the Status of Your FAFSA Form
You can monitor the status of your FAFSA form online, at the FAFSA website. You'll need to use your PIN number to check if your form has been processed. Processing time for a FAFSA form may range from 1-2 days up to 2 weeks.
The status of your FAFSA form won't tell you what financial aid you're going to receive. However, it will tell you if you've completed the form correctly, and if it's been processed. Information about the aid you'll receive comes from the school you plan on attending.
Contact Your School's Financial Aid Office
After your application is processed, contact the financial aid department of the school you're planning to attend (or the several schools you're considering). The people in this department will be able to tell you what your options are, in terms of financial aid. You may qualify for scholarships, grants, subsidized or unsubsidized loans, tuition waivers, and/or work-study.
Be courteous and patient with the people in these offices, even if the process gets frustrating. It's a difficult job to divide up a school's limited financial aid funds, and being disrespectful to them certainly won't make the process easier for anyone.
Apply Again Every Year
New students often think that once they've received financial aid, they're set for the rest of their time in college. This can be a costly mistake. The FAFSA form, as well as most state applications, must be completed every year in order to receive financial aid. For school-specific programs and scholarships, students usually need to re-apply or re-qualify in order to continue receiving the aid.
There's Help Out There
If this all just seems like too much work, too confusing, or overwhelming, remember that there are professionals you can hire to help. Hiring a professional in no way guarantees that you'll receive the aid you're hoping for, but it can certainly ease the stress of the application process. Be careful, though: there are several financial aid scams out there. Do your research, and only hire a reputable professional.