Getting an education is one of life's great accomplishments, and, just like many valuable things, it's not cheap. Before we pick our major and wonder about our dorm roommate's strange habits, most of us have to think about how we (or our parents) will pay for college, and most of us will need some type of financial aid.
Financial aid can come in the form of student loans, grants or scholarships. Some financial aid requires that you pay it back after you finish school, while other help doesn't have to be paid back. Grants or scholarships can be based on financial need, good grades or just about anything else. The bottom line is that there are a lot of opportunities out there, and if you find what's right for you, you can get a great education without having to live on ramen noodles from now until retirement.
Read on for 5 tips for successfully riding the financial aid roller coaster.
All types of financial aid have deadlines, and you'll be frustrated with yourself if you have to delay your education because you didn't file on time. The deadline for electronically filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the launching pad of financial aid, is usually June 30 for the academic year that starts in the fall, but deadlines for state financial aid are usually in the spring [source: Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. If you're going to miss out on money for college, it shouldn't be because you decided to hang out at the mall that day and missed the deadline.
You can fill out a FAFSA for federal-funded aid, but there are countless other sources of money for college. There are scholarships based on minority status, disability, grade point average, extracurricular participation or the college major you plan to pursue. You probably won't get every scholarship or grant you apply for, so apply for as many as you can find that you qualify for. Thousands of dollars in grant and scholarship money go unclaimed every year, and claiming some of that money for yourself can help you reduce your student loan debt. Don't forget to ask the financial aid office about institutional aid. Institutional aid is scholarship money that a university awards to its students, and it's a funding opportunity that lots of students miss during their applications. Your high school and university will give you information for free, and you can also get free info online [source: U.S. Department of Education].
Once you've found lots of financial aid to apply for, you'll need to keep everything straight. Every source of financial aid has its own rules, requirements and deadlines, and you can lose an award if you don't jump through the right hoops. Keep a separate file (the old-fashioned paper kind) for each financial aid package you're applying for, and have a cover sheet in each file that lists the important deadlines. Any time you submit an application online, print a copy of the submission page, which should give you a confirmation number and the exact time and date of your submission [source: Free Application for Federal Student Aid].
The bulky, paper FAFSA of yesteryear is a relic that some of today's college students have never even seen. Most sources of financial aid allow you to file online, and user-friendly Web pages help you make sure you fill everything out. Filing electronically is also faster, and you don't have to worry about your paperwork getting lost in the mail. Just be sure to keep a record of your applications, and complete or save your submission before you exit your browser. Keep in mind that most deadlines are for completed submissions, not for applications in progress [source: Free Application for Federal Student Aid].
Read all of the instructions carefully when you're applying for financial aid. Don't skim, no matter how tempting -- financial aid instructions may make the back of a box of corn flakes seem exciting by comparison, but those instructions could make the difference between spending the semester working toward a degree or bagging groceries. So, pay attention, and follow the instructions to the letter. If you don't understand something, ask your guidance counselor or financial aid advisor -- it's better to save your application and come back to it later instead of submitting it incorrectly and possibly losing the aid. When you've finished with an application for financial aid, double-check everything before you hit the "submit" button. And, most importantly, make sure you understand what you're signing up for. You'll have to pay back your student loans someday, whether or not you get that dream job.
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- Free Application for Federal Student Aid. "Application Deadlines." March 28, 2010. (May 19, 2010) http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/before003a.htm
- United States Department of Education. "Looking for Student Aid: Federal, State and Other Sources of Information." April 14, 2003. (May 18, 2010) http://studentaid.ed.gov/students/publications/lsa/index.html