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MAIN Arrow to Personal Finance Personal Finance Arrow to Financial Aid 101 Financial Aid 101

Where Can You Apply for Financial Aid?
Simple Steps to File A FAFSA

If applying for financial aid has you more nervous than taking the SATs, relax...

There is a lot riding on the amount of college aid you receive and there are a lot of students trying to get a piece of the financial aid money that's available. The good news is that the process is a lot easier than it used to be and there are plenty of people who are there to help.

fafsa application formFile Your FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid - the FAFSA - is the way to apply for everything.

Start off in January to make sure you meet the deadlines for application for financial aid in the schools you are considering. Most colleges have a deadline in February. Check your school information to find out what the deadline for financial aid is at each school.

Yes, you did read February - and some school financial aid deadlines are even earlier. So, you'll need to get busy. Even if your tax returns have not been filed yet—estimate the amounts. Even if you don't know which school you'll be attending—put down the most probable schools. You can always add another school later, but you will miss the deadlines if you wait until you are sure of where you've been accepted. The earlier you apply, the more money will still be available.

There are a few simple steps to get your FAFSA into the system.

First you'll need to get a FSA ID. It's a way to make sure that no one but you can get access to your financial aid information.

  1. Get a FSA ID - Just go to the Department of Education's FSA ID page. Follow the simple directions. Anyone who has a valid Social Security Number and is a US Citizen or eligible Non-Citizen (you'll need a green card number) may apply for a FSA ID. When you apply for a FSA ID for the first time, your name, date of birth, and Social Security Number get checked against the Social Security Administration's (SSA) database. If the information you provide does not match the Social Security Administration's database, you will not receive a FSA ID.

    Make sure you are careful when you put the information in and USE THE SAME NAME AS YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY CARD. If your card says Joseph and you put Joe down for the ID - you won't be approved. If you are Maria Teresa and every one calls you Teresa but your legal name on your social security card is Maria - use Maria on your application. Using more than one name will cause you problems during the entire process. Use the name on your social security card for everything.

  2. If you are going to receive the FSA ID by e-mail, verify the e-mail address where it will be sent. If you provided an e-mail address, a link to your FSA ID will be e-mailed to you within 3 days. If you want the FSA ID snail-mailed, verify your mailing address and it will be mailed to you within 7-10 days. If you don't receive it, find out why!

  3. Any questions? Contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID.

The FREE Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) is the application for any type of Federal grant, loan or work study program. Notice that is FREE. Anyone who charges you to fill out the FAFSA should be asked why they are charging for a free service. The Federal Government runs a free live Chat to answer any FAFSA related questions you might have.

Most schools use the FAFSA information to give school based scholarships and other financial aid. Even if you think you don't need assistance -- file the FAFSA. You may find that you need to apply for a student loan or a parent loan and you can't if you haven't filed the FAFSA. You also may be pleasantly surprised by getting some unexpected help with your school expenses!

"Most people get frightened looking at the FAFSA. The best advice is to start at the first question and then take each one step by step. Before you know it, you're done!"

The Financial Aid year begins in with the beginning of the fall semester in September, NOT JANUARY, and ends the following August. So, if you intend to be enrolled in the Fall of 2017 you need to file the FAFSA for 2015-2016.


  1. Get organized. Get the paperwork you need together before you start the application. The FAFSA site has a good rundown of everything you'll need.

  2. Fill out the FAFSA online. First - make sure you choose the right year.

Most people get frightened looking at the FAFSA. The best advice is to start at the first question and then take each one step by step. Before you know it, you're done!

Don't think you can do it yourself? Give it a try. The first few questions are your name, date of birth, Social Security Number and address...just a few items to identify you. You can definitely handle that!

Where it says first name...put in your first name. You won't believe how many students mess up the name part and wind up being Smith John instead of John Smith. Of course, that's a big problem -- it's the wrong name!

Make sure you check off the male or female box. Males must register for the draft to be eligible for federal benefits. If you didn't register when you turned it now. If you are over 26 and haven't registered, you may not be eligible for financial aid. See your financial aid counselor immediately. Women are not required to register. If you leave the box unchecked it can create complications in your financial aid application process.

One area of the FAFSA that causes a lot of problems is the amount of taxes you or your family paid. Many people use the amount of taxes that were withheld from their pay, especially if they're completing the FAFSA with estimated figures before taxes have been filed. Remember, when you do file your taxes - if you get a refund - you pay less taxes than the amount that was withheld. This can make a big difference in your financial aid eligibility. Make sure you enter the correct number or estimate the number correctly. Deduct your expected refund from what your employer withheld from your pay check. If you do have your tax forms, the FAFSA tells you which line to look at on your 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ. Just pay attention...follow the directions and it really is pretty easy to complete the FAFSA on your own.

You don't need to pay someone to fill out the FAFSA for you. Anyone who tells you that they can get you extra money by filling out the form for you is wrong. The information you're entering is factual information. Unless you lie and put down false information you can't change the numbers. If you pay someone who enters 10 people in your family with $8,000 income the results will get you considered for lots of financial aid...until you get verified and your tax forms don't match the FAFSA...and there are penalties for filing false information.

Some applicants pay a lot of money to have the forms filled out by "consultants" who promise to get more money for them. Take some professional advice...use the money you'd pay someone to fill out your FAFSA to buy books instead!

Once you file the FAFSA, it gets processed through a very complicated formula called a "needs analysis." The Federal Government adjusts this formula every year to make it fair. The end result is your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will have a number in the top right that is labeled the "Expected Family Contribution (EFC)." That's the amount that you can be expected to have available for school expenses based on the information you submitted.

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) really has nothing to do with what your family can contribute. Most students cannot contribute as much as the government calculates...and most students wind up having to come up with more than they can afford to contribute even by the government's standards. The EFC is just a number that the school financial aid officers can use to figure out how to fairly distribute the financial aid money that is available.

Visit the College Financial Aid Office
Once you've filed the FAFSA and received the SAR, pay a visit to the schools financial aid office. Remember that most schools are calculating financial aid for September by the middle of February. The people who work in the office are very, very busy and there are a lot of students who want to get financial aid trying to get in to see the counselors.

Make an appointment before you visit and be patient once you get there. You want to discuss applying for any school based scholarships and loans to make sure you will get the best possible financial aid package for your upcoming school year. The Financial Aid Officer can also review your EFC to determine if you have been chosen for verification or if there seems to be a problem with the results of your FAFSA.

If your family situation has changed let them know. For instance, if one of your parents has become unemployed the Financial Aid Officer has the authority to have you fill out a "Special Conditions" application, or the counselor may be able to make adjustments for medical expenses or other unusual circumstances.

The Financial Aid Officer is not your enemy. The people who work in financial aid offices usually are there because they enjoy helping deserving students get through school. Most college aid officers have at least a Masters degree and, contrary to what many students believe, they really could get anther job if they didn't get any satisfaction from helping you.

The problem is that they need to spread a very little bit of money among a large number of applicants. If there is anything that they can do do help you, they will. They cannot make you more eligible than the FAFSA numbers say you are. There are very strict government regulations covering Federal Student Financial Aid and colleges are audited on a regular basis to make sure they are following the rules. Your financial aid counselors will do their best to help you pay for college, but they cannot perform miracles. A bit of advice...Financial Aid Officers see enough students to tell when a story is bogus and yelling at them will not help you get your application processed. They will be much more willing to work with you if you are honest and polite. If you are asked to bring in a document, return with it as soon as possible.

File your FAFSA early and follow through to make sure you get the financial aid you are eligible for..


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