High-school seniors and their parents have plenty to do when it comes to paying for that first-year college experience. The sooner you begin, the better your chances of snagging student aid.
While others are meeting up at coffee shops, watching bowl games or planning spring break trips, you might save thousands by getting a head start on financial aid paperwork. You know, a fair amount of college scholarships and other aid exists, but it doesn’t just fall into your lap. Typically you must search out the applications, get some recommendation letters, write essays and follow specific rules.
Yes, parents, it’s a challenge to motivate those seniors to dig in and uncover financial aid opportunities and write those essays. But the early bird gets the money, so to speak. Here’s a quick checklist to keep ahead of the financial aid game:
Do this tasks now:
• Gather financial records and get your income tax return done early. You’ll 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.
• Find and start scholarship applications – students can find the forms, get those essays developed and ask mentors or teachers to write letters of recommendation. Sure, your students think there’s plenty of time to do these later, but deadlines pass right by good intentions. Besides, you should allow plenty of time for anyone writing recommendations – they’re busy too! February 1 is a common scholarship deadline, but some are earlier.
• Check financial aid deadlines at the college(s) your student wants to attend. Obviously narrowing this list to a couple choices makes the 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 get 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 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 financial aid types – grants, scholarships, loans, work-study.
After spring break, students should:
• Send thank-you notes to those organizations awarding you scholarships.
• Keep searching for last-minute scholarship opportunities.
• Keep up those grades and turn in assignments on time.
• Finalize a budget for first semester, with your parents’ help.
• Focus on finding a summer job.
Students should be able to enjoy the final weeks of that senior year, knowing they have already researched student aid options. Good luck!