Disclaimer: Every college has different policies regarding financial aid and the paperwork that they require. This information is simply based on my knowledge from my experiences and should not be taken as gospel. For specific questions, please consult your school’s financial aid office or studentaid.gov.
First things first…FAFSA
The FAFSA is your first step to receiving financial aid in college. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application has to be completed every year that you would like to receive financial aid. Your university’s financial aid office uses the FAFSA to determine your financial need, which determines how much aid you qualify for.
One of the most common mistakes that people make is to not even fill out the FAFSA altogether. Some families assume that they make too much money to be able to qualify for any aid, but you may be surprised! If anything, it doesn’t hurt to try.
How Much Money Am I Getting?
There are several factors that can affect how much money you will receive in financial aid, including your family’s income, whether you are a full-time or part-time student and the cost of attending your university. Furthermore, the amount of financial aid that you receive from year to year can fluctuate depending on your income and your family’s income for the given tax year.
All of these calculations usually happen through an automated program and then is reviewed by an advisor at your institution, who then creates an award letter for you. If you want more detailed information as to how this is calculated, you can visit studentaid.gov.
Your Golden Ticket…Your Award Letter!
After your university has received your FAFSA and calculated what financial aid you have been awarded, you will be issued a financial aid award letter. This is sent to you either online or in the mail. Keep an eye on your campus email and your mailbox at home to make sure you don’t miss it!
Your award letter will outline all of the financial aid that you qualify for, based on the calculations that were mentioned above. You will have the option to either accept or reject the financial aid offered to you. Below are some of the different types of aid that you might see on your award letter:
Grants should be one of the first things that you accept on your offer letter because they are essentially free money. There are no “catches” if you accept a grant and you do not have to repay them.
Federal Pell Grant
The Federal Pell Grant is awarded to students based on financial need. There is, however, a limit to the amount of Pell Grant that you can receive; students cannot receive a Pell Grant for more than 12 semesters.
State grants will vary from state to state and can be affected by a variety of factors, including GPA, financial need, etc. Consult your state’s Department of Education or your school’s financial aid office for more information on what is offered and what you qualify for.
There are two kinds of scholarships that students can receive — institutional or outside scholarships. Institutional scholarships are money that the university itself is offering you. An example of this would be a Provost’s or President’s scholarship based on your high school GPA or SAT/ACT scores.
You can also apply for outside scholarships from organizations other than your university. There are scholarships for just about anything and there are so many websites dedicated to listing scholarships for college students. Here are a few of my favorites: DOL Scholarship Search, FastWeb and College Board. Your high school or university also should have an up-to-date listing of local scholarships available, as well.
Student loans are one of the most dreaded parts of college. Student loans are money that the government lends you in order to pay for college. Students begin to repay their loan, plus interest, six months after graduation.
The most important thing to remember about loans is to only borrow what you need. A lot of students just take the full amount of loans offered to them, without considering how much will be covered by other financial aid or how much they can pay out of pocket. Contact your financial aid office if you wish to lower your loan amount.
There are several types of loans that you might see on your offer letter:
Subsidized loans are only available to students with financial need, as determined from your FAFSA. If you have to take out any loans, this one is your best option, because the interest is paid for by the Department of Education while you are in school and for the first six months after graduation.
The unsubsidized loan is available to anyone, regardless of financial need. However, the amount that you can borrow will still be determined by the information from your FAFSA. Because the interest on this loan is not paid for at any time by the Department of Education, you have two options. You can either begin to pay interest on your loan while you are in school or your interest will begin to increase, even when you are in school.
The Parent PLUS loan is, as the name suggests, a loan that is taken out by the parent. In order to take out this loan, the parent must have a good credit history.
…so now what?
Now that you have successfully completed your offer letter, your university can begin processing your aid. But first, there are a couple of documents that your university might request from you. If you are taking out a loan, you will need to complete the Loan Entrance Counseling and the Master Promissory Note, which can both be done at studentloans.gov.
The financial aid office will contact you if they need any more information or paperwork from you. Be sure to check your campus email and home mailbox so that you don’t miss any important deadlines.