How Financial Aid Applications Work

Filling Out the Application

The most important form you will fill out is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The information you provide will be the basis for need-based grants and loans, whether from the federal government or individual colleges. You begin by filling out a short form that assigns a Personal Identification Number (PIN) to you.

The FAFSA asks for basic information, such as your Social Security number, citizenship and college enrollment status. If your parents or someone else lists you as a dependent for tax purposes, then you will usually be asked to provide information about their income and assets as well as your own.

The purpose of the FAFSA is to calculate a figure representing how much money your family is expected to contribute to your education. This amount is known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). It will be reported to you on your Student Aid Report (SAR), which will be sent to you after you file your FAFSA. The information on the FAFSA will be the basis of the package of grants, work-study opportunities, and loans that you may be offered.

You can file the FAFSA beginning Jan.1 of the year for which you're applying for aid. You should try to finish it as soon as possible. Many college financial aid deadlines are March 1, but some might be earlier [source: College Board: Handbook]. You can read more about the FAFSA in How the FAFSA Works.

Next, you may turn to applications for private scholarships. Always follow directions carefully. Making a simple mistake, like failing to list your current grade in school or leaving out the year you joined a club, can disqualify you. Neatness and grammar count, and be absolutely sure of your spelling. Also, don't leave any blanks. If you don't need to answer a question, write "not applicable."

Read each question carefully. When working online, you can cut and paste sections of your resume into the application form. But if the question asks you to list four academic honors and your resume includes seven, be sure to alter your answer according to the directions. When submitting the application, be sure to include only what's asked for. Don't send additional information, and don't include attachments unless they are requested -- they may make your application harder to handle or even disqualify you [source: Scholarship Help].

Once you've completed the application, check over your answers thoroughly. Your name should appear on every page in case the pages become separated. Make sure you file the application before the deadline. If it's an online application, print out a complete copy. If you're mailing it, ask for delivery confirmation from the post office to be sure it arrives. You should make a copy of all the information that you send with each application.

In the next section, we'll take a look at the most common steps for completing the application process.