Most students don’t give much thought to what happens after they get those coveted acceptance letters, but there are still many important steps to take before actually enrolling in the college of your dreams. Getting in is half the battle, but then you have to figure out the financial side of college.
Complete all financial aid forms
Your first step is to complete all financial aid forms required or recommended by your school.
Every student should complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – even those who don’t think they’ll actually qualify for student aid. First, a lot of colleges use FAFSA information to calculate school-based aid; second, each year, students who didn’t complete the FAFSA leave billions of dollars of federal aid on the table, often because they mistakenly thought they wouldn’t qualify. The worst thing that can happen if you fill out the FAFSA and don’t qualify for aid is that you may have wasted a little time completing the form. It’s a pretty tiny risk to take to try to get some extra aid for college.
The next most common financial aid form is the CSS PROFILE, which is used by a lot of private colleges and by a handful of public schools. This form offers colleges a somewhat more nuanced view of a family’s financial situation than does the FAFSA, which is why many colleges require both forms. The CSS PROFILE is commonly used to determine school-based aid. Unlike the FAFSA, there is an application fee, but the fee pales in comparison to the potential financial awards that students could earn in school-based aid.
Some schools and states have their own specific required forms. If you’re at all unclear on which forms your school requires, don’t hesitate to contact the financial aid office to ask!
Compare financial aid packages
Even if you got into your dream college, it’s a good idea to compare financial aid award letters from other schools you may have been admitted to. If your financial aid award from your dream college is substantially less generous than the awards from other schools, you might be able to contact the financial aid office to appeal. Alternatively, if the difference in aid is truly drastic, you might want to reconsider attending a different (and more generous) college.
Look for additional scholarships
Start with the school by asking the financial aid office if there are any scholarship or grant opportunities that you might be able to apply for that are not already listed on your financial aid award letter. Next, utilize resources like Fast Web or the College Board to identify outside scholarships that you might be eligible for. Be careful, though: Many colleges will use outside scholarship funds to reduce the amount of school-based gift aid that you receive. Before applying for outside scholarships, ask the financial aid office if it is possible to apply outside scholarships to reduce loans rather than gift aid.