The Early Bird Gets the Money

While “the Joneses” are waiting in line to save a few bucks on Black Friday, you might save thousands for college by getting a head start on financial aid paperwork.

Parents with high-school seniors have plenty to do when it comes to funding that first-year college experience. The sooner you begin, the better your chances of snagging student aid. (And yes, it’s a challenge to motivate your senior to get moving to search for financial aid and write scholarship essays.)

Here’s a quick checklist to keep ahead of the financial aid game:

In December:
• Gather financial records to complete your tax return early. You need this info to file the FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
• Get a Federal Student Aid PIN (personal identification number) to streamline your student aid and FAFSA process and to sign electronically.
• Have your student fill out scholarship applications, and get those essays written. Sure, they think there’s plenty of time to do these later, but deadlines can pass right by and you miss out. February 1 is a common scholarship deadline, but some are earlier. Christmas vacation is a great time to fill out applications.
• Check on financial aid deadlines at the colleges your student wants to attend. (Obviously narrowing the list to a couple makes this task easier.)
• Set aside money for your own IRA or 401k (or you won’t get around to it, because the money will sneak into the college fund).

A word of warning: You don’t need to pay to have help in filing the FAFSA, nor should you pay for help in finding money for college. Check here to avoid scams.

After January 1:
• File the FAFSA. The earlier you do this, the better. Complete the FAFSA on-line or on paper to see your qualifying amount of financial aid. Online is quicker.
• Compare college offers—use the Student Aid Reports. You will get one from each college to which you sent a FAFSA. To estimate your true out-of-pocket costs, use the Net Price Calculator found on the website for each college. (It is required by law, but if you can’t find it, check http://collegecost.ed.gov.)
• Help your student choose the college to attend and notify the admissions office. To help with this process, you can use this handy College Cost Shopping Sheet.

After committing to attend:
• Get acquainted with staff in the college financial aid office.
• Search for and fill out required paperwork to qualify for college-specific scholarships. Some departments also have scholarships for specific fields of study, so it can pay to declare a major. Again, the early bird gets the money, so check deadlines and apply quickly.
• Understand the difference in types of financial aid –grants, scholarships, loans, work-study.

After spring break:
• Send thank you notes to those organizations awarding you scholarships.
• Search out last-minute scholarship opportunities.
• Keep up those grades and turn in assignments on time.
• With your parents, finalize your budget for the fall semester.
• Focus on finding a summer job.

Students should be able to enjoy the final weeks of that senior year, knowing they have already searched student aid options. Good luck!

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