The aid process can seem overwhelming at times, but there are only three major steps.
Of these three steps, Step 1 is by far the most important. The federal government requires the FAFSA for anyone seeking federal aid - by far the largest source of aid. Virtually every school also requires the FAFSA as well for determining institutional aid.
Administered by the Department of Education, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid provides the government and financial aid offices with crucial information about the financial status of each student and, for dependent students, their family's financial situation. This form is required by all colleges.
Based on government calculations, you will be given an official Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that will help schools determine your eligibility for grants, subsidized loans, and college-sponsored aid.
The FAFSA should be filed online through the Department of Education's FAFSA website. With dozens of detailed financial questions, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the FAFSA process. If you need help, the FAFSA website offers help via online chat, phone, and email. Your school's financial aid office may also be able to help. If you are confused or unsure about the FAFSA, we urge you to seek help - mistakes will delay the aid process or even cause you to receive the wrong amount of aid.
You can file the FAFSA as soon as October 1 in the year before you hope to receive aid. You must complete the FAFSA as early as possible keeping a close eye on your school and state filing deadlines. Many sources of aid are given out on a first come first served bases so it is extremely important not to miss a deadline.
The FAFSA must be updated yearly as long as you receive federal aid.
The Student Aid Report
After submitting the FAFSA, you will receive your "Student Aid Report" in a few weeks. The results will also be sent to the schools you listed on your form. This report includes your Expected Family Contribution, and states all the figures from the FAFSA that were used in calculating your Expected Family Contribution.
The first thing you should do when the Student Aid Report comes is to check it for errors. If an error was made, it may be more difficult to qualify for aid. On the other hand, if the errors are in your favor, you could be penalized later for not correcting them.
Please keep in mind that schools have formulas for calculating financial aid that may yield a different expected family contribution. Other schools may require additional documentation of income or assets.
The PROFILE Form
A service of the College Board, the PROFILE is required for many schools - especially schools with access to significant institutional or private aid. The schools you apply to will tell you if the PROFILE is required. If you are unsure whether the schools you are applying to require the PROFILE, we recommend you fill it out anyway so there is no possibility of missing out on all the aid you are eligible for.
Re-Applying for Federal Aid
Just when you thought you were done, there's one more thing to keep in mind. While the policies of private loan lenders will vary, any student taking out federal loans must re-apply for financial aid each year they are in school.
Luckily, there are a few options that often make the process of re-applying for aid easier. First of all, many students are eligible to complete a Renewal FAFSA. This simplified form allows you to update your information from the previous year without having to start over. Next, some financial aid offices participate in the Electronic Data Exchange (EDE) program, which allows you to re-apply through your aid office. Finally, you may choose to file a completely new FAFSA each year. Your school's aid office will be the best source of information on re-applying for federal aid.