9 Financial Aid Tips for First-Timers

FullSizeRender (1)It’s that time of year again to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as the FAFSA). For many of you, this may be the first time you start treading into the uncharted waters of financial aid. While the FAFSA may seem daunting, the task can easily be broken down into steps … although it may be many, many, steps. But fear not, you can triumph this great feat.

Here are some reminders, tips, and advice for approaching the financial aid application process. Keep in mind that there are exceptions to every case and I am offering advice from personal experience. Should you have questions pertaining to your specific situation, you should seek out advice from your guidance counselor or financial aid office.

  1. Start the conversation and set expectations. Sit down and have a conversation with your parent(s)/guardian(s) about financial aid documents and the FAFSA. In some cases, they may not feel comfortable speaking about their financial situation. Approach the discussion maturely, explaining how applying for financial aid is crucial to making your higher education possible. While you are at it, lay out your expectations for them as well as for yourself so that everyone is on the same page.
  2. File taxes early, or estimate. Filing taxes early can definitely streamline the financial aid process, but it shouldn’t prevent you from filling out the information in the applications. If you aren’t able to file early, estimate to the best of your ability and edit the information later.
  3. Get organized. Create a Google calendar that features important dates. Share this calendar with your parents so that they know when important deadlines are coming up. Prioritize which tasks are of high, medium, or low priority. Designate a file or a folder on your computer pertaining to financial aid documents of all kinds.
  4. Check things off as you go. Determine the forms each school needs to fully assess your financial situation and start checking them off as you fill them out. To my knowledge, all schools require the FAFSA, but many others also require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. I also used the Institutional Documentation Service, known as IDOC, for a number of my schools, including some QuestBridge partner colleges. The process is lengthy, so I recommend setting a weekend aside to complete the forms.
  5. Follow up with each school’s financial aid office by calling or emailing. At this high traffic time in the year, financial aid offices receive hundreds if not thousands of documents a week. To prevent sleepless nights of debating whether the financial aid office received your documents, a simple call or email will put your fears to rest.
  6. Apply for scholarships! A quick Google search will bring up dozens of sources to find scholarships. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if there are any local scholarships being offered or seek out an upperclassman who has received a scholarship you are interested in for some words of wisdom about applying.
  7. When college decisions start rolling in, keep all financial aid letters you receive. If you are accepted to more than one school, and you may receive more favorable aid from one of them than another. If you want to appeal your aid decision, make sure you tactfully specify why the current aid is insufficient in your circumstances. In some cases, your financial aid might be amended. Sit down with your parents and and discuss which option is most affordable for your family.
  8. Plan ahead for annual filing. Filing for financial aid is an annual task. Although some deadlines may shift from year to year, remember to keep any important documents in case you need to return to them in the future. With that said, make a copy of everything you send in and save it on a flashdrive or in Google Drive.
  9. Make sure to breathe. Applying for and staying on top of the financial aid process can get annoyingly meticulous. Take five minute breaks here and there to regain clarity. If you break down the financial aid process into tiny realistic blocks, you will stay level headed.

Good luck!

– Caroline Haoud, Columbia University ’19