Not ready to apply but want to estimate what your Expected Family Contribution will be? Use our free calculator.
Follow these steps to apply for college financial aid.
Step 1: Apply for an FSA ID.
Apply for a FSA ID at fsaid.ed.gov. Your FSA ID will enable you to “sign” documents electronically and make corrections to your FAFSA through the web. Both the parent and student must each apply for a FSA ID.
Step 2: Submit the FAFSA.
File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon after October 1 as possible. The FAFSA is used by all colleges to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and your eligibility for federal and state aid. Most colleges also use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for institutional aid.
The FAFSA cannot be filed until after October 1st, but it must be completed and received prior to the college’s priority deadline date. The FAFSA must be filed for every year the student is in school. The FAFSA is an online application that requires an electronic signature from both a parent and the student applicant.
Families are encouraged to file the FAFSA early even if they do not have all the necessary tax information required for the form.This information can be estimated and updated at a later time.
There is no fee involved in filing the FAFSA and all families are encouraged to apply regardless of their family circumstances. While the FAFSA form may seem long and complicated to fill out, help is available through the College Planning Center.
Step 3: Submit the CSS/PROFILE, if necessary.
Some private independent colleges require you to file a CSS/PROFILE application or an institutional financial aid form to determine your eligibility for their own sources of financial aid. The PROFILE application can be completed as early as October and is only available online here. Make sure you understand if you need to file any additional forms to apply for financial aid and that you submit them by the school’s specified deadline.
Step 4: Review your eligibility.
After filing the FAFSA, you will receive a report outling your eligibily. If you find any errors on this report, make sure to update them promptly through the online system and be sure to notify your school of any changes in financial circumstances.
The EFC information from on your FAFSA will be sent to the financial aid office at the colleges that you indicated on your FAFSA form. Each college then takes that amount and subtracts the EFC from their total cost of attendance. That figure is your family's demonstrated financial need for that particular college. Financial need will be different for each college you apply to because each college's total cost of education is different.
Step 5: Compare your award letters.
Each college's financial aid office then determines what aid it has available to help meet your demonstrated financial need. Schools will aim to meet as much of your need as possible but not all schools can afford to meet 100% of your financial need. The financial aid office will put together a financial aid package for you. The aid may come in the form of grants, work study, scholarships, federal student loans and so on.
Remember when your financial aid package arrives in the mail, read it over carefully. Decide if you want to accept any of or the entire award. Pay attention to instructions the school gives you. You may have to complete additional paperwork to fully accept the award. However, if you feel that the award does not fully meet your financial needs or your needs have changed due to illness, unemployment or for some other reason, you can try appealing the award. Make sure to have documentation that supports your request.
If you receive multiple financial aid packages, take note of which expenses are included in each school’s total cost of attendance when you compare. Also, pay attention to what kind of aid each school is offering your family. One school might meet a higher percentage of your need, but may do so with a greater proportion of loans.
Your financial aid package may or may not cover your total financial need. If financial need is not entirely met, this unmet need is called a "gap." This means that resources must be found in order to meet the full cost of education. In many cases this will mean additional student and parent loans. Use our paying for college calculator to figure our how you will meet the difference.
Step 6: Apply for loans, if necessary.
Your school may include federal student or parent loans on your award letter. If these loans are not listed on your award letter, you still may be eligible to borrow. To accept your federal loan awards, you will need to complete a Master Promissory Note. You will also need to select a lender if you decide to take out a non-federal student loan.
With your financial aid award letter, your school may have included a list of preferred lenders to assist you with the lender selection process, if you are looking to borrow a non-federal student loan. While financial aid offices typically recommend lenders based on loan terms and customer service, it pays to do some research before choosing a lender to make sure you are getting the best deal for you.