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If you’re homeschooling a high school senior, or if you are a senior, the next few months are going to be a combination of exciting and nerve wracking. College financial aid, applying for it, waiting for it, and figuring the esoteric process out will be a big part of that.
I wish I could say applying for financial aid is easy, but it isn’t. There are a few things that are easily done, and relatively few forms to fill out, but the grandaddy of financial aid forms – the FAFSA, is a tedious piece, a necessary evil.
Why? Because most colleges will use your FAFSA numbers to determine any need-based aid they’ll be offering you. For better, or for worse, the FAFSA is a necessary part of the college financial aid picture and can help make college more affordable, it certainly did for me.
My financial aid journey
As challenging and overwhelming as applying for financial aid can be, it’s not an impossible task. When I started applying to schools my senior year of high school I had no idea what a FAFSA was, or how it worked. The learning curve was pretty steep (read the full story here).
So I did what my homeschooling education taught me to do when I didn’t know something: I researched it.
I knew I had to pay for college somehow and that scholarships were available so I started doing Internet research, reading books, and finding recent magazine articles. Relevant information, was bookmarked, written down and printed for easy reference.
I also made sure to work at saving my own money with different jobs (an approach I highly recommend), get accurate “cost of attendance numbers” and find out what kind of academic scholarships I could get.
The moral of the story here is to recognize that a successful approach to financial aid is a multi-pronged approach involving personal savings, GPA and test scores, calculated need and outside funding (scholarships).
Considering the diversity of funding sources, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with it all and have way too many tabs opened in your web browser or pages bookmarked for future reading. Why not have one starting point?
I give you
The Ultimate List of College Financial Aid Resources
Below you’ll find a list of links to articles, books and websites useful to helping plot a steady, less stressful, approach to financial aid. It’s certainly a list that can be added to, so if you know of a great resource I’m missing please let me know in the comments!
Before we get to all the resources below, there’s a few pointers I should make about financial aid in general and how I’m organizing these sources.
- Get over sticker shock: If you freaked out over the high tuition, please recognize that you will most likely not be paying the full price. This is important because overreacting to sticker shock often leads people to waste time on trying to game the system. However,
- Don’t try to game the system: The most common attempt to game the system is attempting to file as an independent tax payer when one doesn’t really qualify. In fact, this is so common, that the FAFSA has built in several checks against this. Don’t try to stretch the truth for easier, faster dollars. It’s also not ethical.
- Know your financial aid profile: Before you click through every single resource here, know what is most likely to help you. What about your academics, family background, experience, etc. could lead to financial aid awards? Make a list and look there first.
- Make a list of financial aid forms you need: The FAFSA and any forms for your home state should be at the top of the list here, but some schools may have separate forms as well. Here’s a list of state award programs.
- Know your need: How much cash will you personally have access to when you go to college (savings, parents helping, etc.)? How long do you have to apply for aid and scholarships? This information is critical to knowing how much you need to pay for school and what you should be prioritizing in terms of applying for aid and scholarships.
- Create an estimated Cost of Attendance (COA): This is a simple equation: Cost of one year of ‘X’ college – X amount of financial aid = Your need. Here’s a really helpful worksheet from the US Department of Education. If you want to compare schools, I’ve created a downloadable Excel spreadsheet for you (totally free).
You now have a bunch of resources, now what?
Create separate folders in your email for “college admissions” and “college financial aid.”
As you start applying for aid and trying to keep track of your applications, your inbox is going to get pretty full, which means overwhelming for most people.
Sort relevant emails for college admissions or financial aid into these folders, then you can focus on them at designated times.
Get out your calendar, a paper one would be best.
Label deadlines for federal, state, and school forms. These need to be your top priority and the sooner they’re done the better.
The FAFSA, in particular, is an essential piece in helping colleges determine your financial aid package.
Parents, set a deadline for filing your taxes early since that information is necessary for the FAFSA.
Sign up for scholarship sites.
I’ll link to scholarship sites below, but a word of caution here: Beware of signing up for a lot of sites.
Start by signing up for 2 or 3 scholarship sites, then add more as you find you can manage the amount of available scholarships to apply to.
Set your scholarship criteria: Amount, deadline/workload, can it double as an assignment?
Don’t just apply for any and every scholarship. There are awards out there that require the same amount of work for vastly different award amounts.
Apply for scholarships that maximize award potential for time worked. You can use the essay as an assignment for one of your high school classes as an added bonus.
Plug scholarship deadlines into your calendar.
Be sure to account for how long you estimate each application will take to complete. Plug in start and end dates for each application.
Also, recognize that scholarship deadlines roughly fall along quarters of the fiscal year, which means that there are times of year that see more deadlines than others so take this into consideration.
Financial aid calendars will look different for each person so don’t expect a silver bullet solution here, it needs to work with your schedule. Most importantly: Don’t cram!
You want to craft high quality scholarship essays and applications and filling your schedule too full will lessen that quality.
Students receive millions, perhaps billions, of dollars every year from the federal and state governments. These awards come in the form of grants (you don’t pay anything back) and loans (you pay them back). Considering how much is given to students, and how many students apply for such aid, it’s not surprising that government sites provide a lot of information on financial aid, and it’s a great place to start because
- It will give you a great, unbiased overview of the financial aid process and
- The FAFSA should be the first financial aid document you turn in.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid takes a little while to fill out, but you can do it online and work on it in stages.
Most recent tax information possible is required so you will need to have tax documentation on hand when filling it out.
A nifty little tool to help you find colleges that fit a certain set of criteria (location, size, type, etc).
Plug in your criteria and you quickly see a side by side comparison of schools, their average cost of attendance, graduation rates, and average salary of students after graduating.
Great for early research.
A similar tool to College Scorecard that allows for comparing schools, but the website is not as clear to navigate.
The plus is that you can install it on your Internet browser’s search bar, which means you don’t have to go to a particular site to research schools.
A simple tool that allows you to check on your home state’s changes in cost of college and outlays for in-state aid.
There are three simple lines to this tool, but the bottom two are the most important. One shows percentage change in average cost of attendance the other changes in average state aid to students.
Compare those numbers. They’ll show whether gaps are opening between cost of college and available aid, which directly impacts affordability. And speaking of affordability, the
allows you to generate quick reports that show you the highest and lowest cost schools across the country.
This is particularly helpful if you’re trying to estimate costs with round numbers. Finding the specific costs on a college website can sometimes be confusing, so this gets you right to the essential information.
Net price is the cost of attendance after you’ve subtracted financial aid.
This tool is powerful because it takes you straight to a specific college that you’re looking for, then walks you through a short questionnaire that then generates an estimated net price for you.
Great for trying to establish how much you’ll need to earn/pay via personal savings, work, and loans (if you’re thinking of using them).
The links above just connect you to tools to help calculate cost of attendance and plan for financial aid, but in my research, I also found some great experts who offer some excellent primers on what the various acronyms and numbers mean that you’ll be encountering in the federal and state financial aid programs.
is the CEO of Stratagee.com, a college consulting firm, and provides an enormously helpful primer on some of the more complex questions of financial aid (for example, what is your expected contribution if you have multiple students going to college?).
I’ve ranked these based on size (how many scholarships do they give you access to) and ease of use.
A more recent newcomer to the scholarship website world, Cappex.com has gained a high reputation for ease of use and the size of its database.
They also have their trademark What Are My Chances calculator that takes your basic application information (GPA, test scores, etc.) and checks them against similar measures at schools you’re looking at, giving you your chances at getting in.
A caveat on that: Do not be discouraged if you score low chances. If it’s a dream school, apply anyway. The calculator is mostly looking at numbers. Your story is also a huge part of your college application.
The largest scholarship site on the Internet, Fastweb has been my go to since high school. You do have to sift through a lot of advertising offers from other schools, so be aware of what you’re clicking on, but the sheer size of scholarships that this site gives you is worth the hassle.
Their college search tool is pretty handy too. Routinely check Fastweb because they’ll always be sending you new opportunities.
Quick and easy sign up process with a very simple, largely distraction free user interface. Very easy to look at a scholarship and remove it from your list, share it on Facebook, or save it for later.
After signing up, I found 35 potential scholarships that I took down to about 5 after sorting them. I share this because 1) this is why you should be on a few scholarship sites and 2) you should expect that and not get discouraged. You want to find relevant scholarship opportunities. Narrowing down the field of possibilities is key.
The profile set up is a little tedious, then it takes a while to load your scholarship results, but at least it’s trying to hard to find good matches.
Pretty straightforward site. I like it’s focus on scholarships, so you’re sifting through a bunch of college search info as well.
Scholarship Monkey has a more limited list of scholarships, but makes up for it in simplicity of design. Without setting up a profile, you can look at scholarships based on keyword research, majors, and other simple criteria. In other words, you can find scholarships without signing up to receive a bunch of emails. Not a bad deal.
LearnU.org sent me an awesome resource:
Amazing resource! If you meet some of the criteria for any of these opportunities, you should definitely have a couple of these schools on your list of possibilities.
While I don’t 100% agree with everything advocated in these books, I think they offer some great insight into the world of financial aid and provide some excellent resources.
An excellent overview of the financial aid world. What I particularly like about this book is its take on college as a financial decision. There’s a chapter devoted to talking about debt, about doing cost-based research, and how college impacts the finances of students and parents alike.
Scholarship websites are great, but can get tedious managing all the email and can be distracting if you start down the rabbit hole of doing college comparisons and reading blog posts and such.
The answer to the predicament is this beast of a book. Think of it as a printed scholarship database without the signup and college advertising hassle.
Kristina’s story is pretty amazing. Kristina, a decent student, pulled together a scholarship package worth $500,000 when all was totaled.
Though you may not reach that level of financial aid, Kristina’s story helps illustrate the importance of having a strategy and provides some helpful information on how to craft one.
Speaker Jim Rohn claims you can boil any skill or knowledge base down to a half dozen key things. That’s good to remember when confronted with the overwhelming nature of financial aid.
This book applies the “just 6 things” principle to scholarships. Like the books above, it too gives a quick overview of the financial aid process, but it’s unique contribution is its advocacy of “low competition” scholarships and how to find them.
Well, you made it all the way to the end of a long read. Now stop and ask yourself this question:
What I’m going to do with this information?
Successful learning happens when we take information and apply it to relevant areas of our lives for advancement, development and improvement.
College is expensive, college financial aid requires a fair amount of work, but those are reasons for action, not complacency! (click to tweet)
What is one resource from this page that you will use this week in finding financial aid?
Share what you’ll use and how you’ll use in the comments below and let’s figure this out together!