According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost to an undergraduate for tuition, fees and room and board at a four-year institution was $19,362 during the 2007-2008 school year [source: NCES]. That's just for one year's education. Many students must turn to some form of financial aid to afford college.
If there were only one type of financial aid, applying might be easy. Perhaps you'd walk into the financial aid office, fill out a few forms, write an essay and they'd cut you a check. But there are many types of financial aid. Even a quick glance at the variety of scholarships available makes it clear that no two options are exactly the same.
The financial aid application process can be overwhelming. Should you apply for scholarships? Would a grant be a better option? What about student loans? With all the options, paperwork and competition for every dollar available, it's easy to become discouraged. But with the right focus and effort, you can improve your chances to get the money you need to go to school.
We've put together five tips, listed in no particular order, that can help you find financial aid. It all begins with a little research.
Do Your Homework
We're not talking about school assignments, although those are also important. Before applying for financial aid, it's a good idea to do some research. There are dozens of scholarships and grants available to students. Each has its own set of requirements and rewards. Some aren't affiliated with any particular college or university -- anyone can apply. Many institutions have specific programs available only to that school's students. There are plenty of resources on the Web, such as Scholarship.com, that can point you in the right direction.
It's important to pay attention to the requirements of each scholarship or grant. In some cases, the money from the program may be used for any cost a student might encounter. Others have strict guidelines on how the student can spend the money. Some scholarships or grants only go to students based on financial need. Others go to students who demonstrate qualities like leadership or community service.
Students don't have to repay money from scholarships or grants. That makes them an attractive alternative to student loans, which must be repaid with interest later on. That also means that it can be competitive to land certain scholarships. But don't let that discourage you. Keep researching, because sometimes you may find a scholarship perfect for your needs that others have overlooked.
Complete the FAFSA Form
The Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) is a request for federal financial aid in the United States. Upon completing the FAFSA, the student becomes a candidate for several federal programs, including the Pell Grant. While not all students will meet the requirements of FAFSA -- the program is based mainly on students' financial need -- many other scholarship programs require students to complete the FAFSA first. In fact, some private organizations require students to be rejected for federal aid before they will consider them for a scholarship.
Filling out the FAFSA can be confusing. You'll need your most recent tax information. If you're a dependent, you'll need the assistance of your parent or guardian while filling out the form. You'll also want to be sure your form is free of errors before you submit it. It's best for high school students to file their forms during their senior year as close to January 1st as possible. But don't sign or send the form before that date.
One thing to keep in mind is that you'll need to reapply for the FAFSA each year you're in school or as long as you want to remain eligible for aid. The federal government has a renewal form that isn't quite as extensive as the initial form.
Apply for Everything You Qualify For
Once you've completed the FAFSA and done your homework, it's time to apply for financial aid. You should submit applications only to the programs for which you are eligible. Pay attention to scholarship and grant requirements. In some cases, the grant or scholarship may only go to a student who has no other financial aid. If you plan on using multiple programs to fund your college education, you may need to skip those programs.
Fill out all application forms completely and make sure you've committed no errors. Keep your materials neat and organized -- a dirty application could cost you a scholarship. Should the application require an essay, write an original piece that is thoughtful and will make a good impression. Be sure to pay attention to deadlines and send your materials in on time.
Avoid sending superfluous or irrelevant materials when you submit your application. Applying for financial aid is not the right time to test the more-is-always-better philosophy.
Ask For Help
At times, you may feel lost when you look at your options for financial aid, and for good reason. There are so many programs, each with their own set of rules and deadlines, that it would be surprising if you didn't find it complicated. That's why you should never hesitate to ask for help.
Most high schools have counselors who can help students sort through financial aid options. You can also check with the financial aid advisor from the college you wish to apply to. Asking questions can save you a lot of time and frustration further down the road.
Check to see if there's a Web site for the aid you're seeking. For instance, students and parents working on the FAFSA form can visit the official site to access frequently asked questions and help guides. Several other scholarships and grants also have Web sites that may answer your questions.
You should never hesitate to ask about a scholarship program that seems fishy to you. There are plenty of scam artists who target students looking for financial aid. Unfortunately, the scholarship you're interested in could be a fraud. Ask a counselor or check with the Better Business Bureau if you encounter a scholarship that sounds questionable.
Be Thorough, Neat and Organized
Staying focused and creating a neat application can go a long way. Remember that your application serves as your first impression with financial aid officials. A clean, organized application indicates you're serious about your education. If you submit a torn, stained or disorganized application, it sends the wrong message.
While a neat application won't necessarily guarantee you that scholarship you're hoping for, a dirty one can eliminate you from consideration. Make certain that everything you submit is intelligible and accurate. This can help your application make it past the initial cut.
Always remember that sending an application in as early as the requirements allow will give you a better shot at receiving the best financial aid. As time passes, colleges and private organizations will award scholarships and grants to students. The longer you wait, the less likely you may be to receive the aid you need.
With some research and care, you may be able to find programs that fit your financial and scholarly needs. Keep in mind that a little hard work can help you pay for part of -- or possibly even your entire -- education.
For more on college financial aid, invest some time in the links on the next page.
College truly is an investment -- of time, energy and (you guessed it) money. Learn some tips for repaying student loans at HowStuffWorks.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- BusinessWeek Online. "The Inside Track to College Cash." Jan. 25, 2005. (Dec. 30, 2009) http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/jan2005/nf20050125_7472_db008.htm
- Chany, Kalman. "5 Financial Aid Tips." Careers & Colleges. Nov/Dec. 2004, Vol. 25, Issue 2, p. 7.
- Coffey, Laura T. "Paying for college without breaking the bank." MSNBC.com. Jan. 17, 2007. (Dec. 30, 2009) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16656681/ns/today_technology_and_money-10_tips/
- Federal Student Aid. (Dec. 29, 2009) http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/index.htm
- Financial Aid Tips. (Dec. 29, 2009) http://www.financialaidtips.org/fafsa.htm
- FinancialAidForCollege.com. "Top College Financial Aid Tips." (Dec. 29, 2009) http://www.financialaidforcollege.com/
- National Center for Education Statistics. "Fast Facts." (Dec. 29, 2009) http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76
- Peterson's. "Top Ten Financial Aid Tips for Parents." (Dec. 29, 2009) http://www.petersons.com/common/article.asp?id=1069
- The Sallie Mae Fund. "Top 10 Tips for Planning and Paying for College." (Dec. 30, 2009) http://www.thesalliemaefund.org/smfnew/fin_aid/index.html
- Scholarships.com. "Financial Aid." (Dec. 29, 2009) http://www.scholarships.com/financial-aid.aspx
- Steinbacher, Michele. "Tips, resources for college tuition." Tribune Business News. Jun. 14, 2009.
- Thompson, Derek. "Financial Aid Special Report." BusinessWeek Online. Feb. 5, 2008. (Dec. 30, 2009) http://www.businessweek.com/bschools/content/feb2008/bs2008025_480320.htm