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Overview of the Financial Aid Process

How do I apply for financial aid?

  • You should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible after October 1 of your senior year in high school. By completing this application you have applied for funds awarded by most federal and state agencies.
  • Applications are processed and results are sent to the colleges you listed on the FAFSA.
  • Your Student Aid Report (SAR) will be provided to you to confirm data (two to three weeks after submitting your application). If you file your FAFSA electronically, processing can take seven days.
  • Your school will then provide you with an award letter outlining types of aid for which you are eligible. Further instructions will be included in the letter. Use this worksheet to compare awards.
  • If the financial aid office has determined that you will need a loan, contact the financial aid administrator regarding the procedures to apply for federal loans.

    NOTE: For loans made after July 1, 2010 colleges participate only in the Federal Direct Loan ProgramNew window icon. In this case, there is no choice of a lender. Follow the college's instructions to get the loan. Check with your college's financial aid office to see if supplemental applications are required. Also investigate private aid sources such as religious organizations, civic organizations and corporations.
  • Apply for other scholarships and grants for which you may be eligible outside of the college or university. For more information, talk with your high school counselor.

When her daughter was applying to colleges, Mary Crippen says that the financial aid offices provided excellent materials and online instructions about the aid process.

"I was able to complete the entire process online using the instructions without assistance from the financial aid office or paid outside consultants," Crippen says. "It did take some time to read through the instructions and go through the steps, though. The first hurdle was to finalize our taxes by the first week in February, because that information was necessary to complete the FAFSA and financial aid forms, so I remember that week being pretty stressful. Once you have your tax information, though, [it's] pretty straightforward."

Crippen recommends keeping the family financial records organized for easy tax preparation. She also says it's important to keep track of deadlines for certain parts of the process.

While having taxes completed makes the process easier, it is important to note that families can estimate their income if it isn't possible to file tax returns prior to a FAFSA deadline. The FAFSA can be updated with information from a completed tax return at a later date.

Filing the FAFSA

Step by step:

  1. Use the FAFSA WHEN? Calculator to see when to file
  2. Complete the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet New window icon
  3. Register for your FSA IDNew window icon.
  4. Read 11 Common FAFSA Mistakes
  5. Use the FAFSA Transfer Module

Get Scholarships

Step by step:

  1. Find and save scholarship profiles in your portfolio
  2. Work to meet eligibility requirements
  3. Prepare essays and recommendations for each
  4. Apply to each