Obtaining financial aid for college is crucial for many families. College financial aid can make the difference when you are choosing schools, deciding whether to take a part-time job and managing your family’s everyday expenses. Only a certain amount of financial aid exists from government resources and your school. Using our College Financial Aid Overview and Calendar below, you can make sure that you are not only at the front of the line for available money, but that you go after financial aid sources in the correct order.
Financial aid for college can come from many sources, including the federal government, state agencies, your school and private donors. You want to make sure that you apply for college financial aid at the right time and in the right order. Basically, make sure you know about all financial aid deadlines and complete everything on-time. If your college financial aid paperwork is late, you might find that the money has already been allocated to other students. As you can see in the steps below, it’s also important to take out college financial aid in the correct order. For example, free money for college, like scholarships and grants, should be utilized before any type of student loans that need to be paid back. We’ve prioritized all of your college financial activities below:
You will need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) every year, starting your senior year in high school. The FAFSA provides the government and your school with information on your family’s financial situation. You can submit the FAFSA each year after January 1st, and we recommend doing so as early as possible.
Every spring, usually around the month of April, your school will send you a award letter detailing your financial aid awards. If you are still in the college selection phase, you’ll want to compare award letters from your prospective schools carefully. Any scholarships or grants you were awarded will be listed on your award letter.
Free money for college is money you don’t have to pay back. Put in the work and be rewarded! Check out our section on College Scholarships & Grants and College Money Tips for more information on finding free money for college.
Don’t be afraid to consult your school’s financial aid office. They can best explain your individual financial aid package and help you with payment options. Also, if your family has experienced financial hardship (i.e. job loss, medical illness) since you last filled out the FAFSA, ask if you might qualify for additional financial aid.
Once you have exhausted free money, you should look to borrower federal student loans for college. The Direct Stafford Loan is the most widely-used low cost loan available to you. Check out our Student Loan Guide for more information.
If you are still in need of financial aid for college taking all the steps above, you might consider an alternative college loan. An alternative college loan is a credit-based student loan, made in your name. You can use alternative college loans to pay for tuition, room & board, books, travel, lab fees, a computer and more. For more information, read our section on Private Student Loans.
Be mindful of these important dates for college financial aid:
Year Round – Start reviewing the costs at your favorite schools and planning the scholarships you would like to apply for next year. Most college scholarships applications can be submitted during your Senior Year, and some may be submitted during your Junior Year.
October – Take the PSAT/NMSQT to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship competition.
Fall/Winter - Complete your college applications by each school’s required deadline.
January 1 – Complete your FAFSA. Approximately 4-6 weeks after you complete your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report from the government.
March/April – Expect to receive a financial aid award letter from all of the schools to which you were accepted. You’ll most likely need to accept your awards by signing and returning your award letter.
May 1 – You will likely have to accept a college offer and your financial aid package.
Summer – Once you have accepted your college financial aid, you’ll need to complete any necessary federal or alternative college loan applications.
Year Round – Be mindful of scholarship deadlines throughout your Senior year.
January 1 – Complete your FAFSA after January 1 every year.
May-July – Expect to receive an updated award letter every year around this time. You’ll most likely need to accept your awards by signing and returning your award letter.
Year Round – Continue to check with your school’s financial aid office about available scholarships. You can also continue to search for scholarships in your community and on the web.