How to Maximize Your Financial Aid Award
How to Maximize Your Financial Aid Award
RomanR /

Figuring out how to apply for financial aid is a daunting process, especially since there are many different sources of aid. If you break it down, though, it’s pretty simple. You can start looking for private scholarships as early as your freshman year in high school (or earlier if you look hard enough). Then, the FAFSA and CSS Profile are of utmost importance. From there, you can do the rest of it on your own. Be sure to find out if your potential schools have separate financial aid applications, and have at it!

Register for the Selective Service System.

Men (and transgender individuals who were born male) between the ages of 18 and 25 must register for the Selective Service to be eligible for federal financial aid. The Selective Service System is basically the draft. In times of war and national emergency, if there are not enough soldiers to fulfill the necessary positions, the government has the authority to call ordinary citizens to join the service. Choosing not to register bars you from receiving any federal financial aid. Plus, it’s illegal not to register and penalties include fines and jail time. Registering for the Selective Service is quick and easy!

Fill out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It opens on October 1 each year to students planning to attend school the next fall and takes about 30 minutes to complete. First, create an FSA ID using your personal information, and then verify your email address. You will have to use your FSA ID to electronically sign your FAFSA. Before filling it out, you will need to collect the following things:

  • Your and your parents’ W-2 forms and tax returns from two years ago (e.g., for the 2020–2021 FAFSA, you will need your 2018 tax information)
  • Bank and financial asset statements
  • Proof of any other types of income
  • A list of schools you are considering applying to and attending

You will also need your social security number or an Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. citizen. Some federal aid programs distribute grants and loans on a first-come, first-served basis, so don’t hesitate to fill out the FAFSA. No matter what, get it done before your school’s posted deadline; sometimes these are as early as February. Click here to begin the application. You will need to submit the FAFSA each year that you hope to receive federal or institutional financial aid.

  • Note: If you and your parents have experienced a significant negative change in income that is not reflected on the tax information that you sent to the FAFSA (e.g., if your or your parents’ 2019 tax return will show significantly less income than your 2018 tax return), you need to contact your prospective institutions directly. You cannot update the tax information that you’ve submitted to the FAFSA (and the FAFSA will only accept tax information from two years prior), but each school has the ability to evaluate your situation and amend your financial aid package. You will need to provide any evidence required by your schools.

Fill out the CSS Profile.

The CSS Profile is a supplement to the FAFSA required by over 300 colleges and scholarship programs. Compared to the FAFSA, the CSS Profile asks more detailed questions about your family’s and your financial situation. It requires generally the same information, but is estimated to take between 45 minutes and two hours to complete. It becomes available on October 1, the same day that the FAFSA opens and almost a full year before students plan to start school. Schools with early admissions programs often use the CSS Profile to give families an idea of their financial aid package if they have not yet submitted their FAFSA. Click here to begin your application.

  • Note: The CSS Profile is not free to file. You will be required to submit a total payment that depends on the number of schools receiving the information.

Apply for private scholarships.

See if your or your parents’ employers offer scholarships for employees or children of employees. Ask your high school guidance counselor if there are any community scholarships for which you may qualify. If you belong to a religious or community organization or association, inquire about scholarships for members. Many of these scholarships are based on more than financial need. Some may take into account your extracurricular activities or special talents. Be wary of scams, though! Never pay to apply for a scholarship. They should be paying you (if you are chosen), not the other way around. Learn more about private scholarships here.

Research in-state aid.

Most states have their own scholarship and grant programs for qualified, resident students who plan to attend a public college or university in-state. There are also regional agreements in which the participating states offer in-state or discounted tuition to qualified students from another state in their region. Further explore your options for state financial aid and regional financial aid.

Apply for institutional scholarships.

Many schools offer their own scholarships and/or grants to students. These may not be easy to find, but it’s important to search for them when researching prospective schools. Some are merit-based and some are need-based (determined by a student’s FAFSA or CSS Profile). Most merit-based scholarships for students with exceptional grades and test scores are highly competitive. Their application deadlines are early. To apply, students may have to submit another essay or writing sample on top of their admissions essay. The hard work is worth it, though. Some scholarships cover the entire cost of your tuition!

  • Note: In some cases, you will automatically be entered into competition for institutional aid when you submit your application to the school. It can be a fun surprise to open up an acceptance letter and see that you’ve received a merit-based scholarship too!

Investigate private loans.

Be wary about private loans because they often have high interest rates, hidden fees, and inflexible options for repayment. That said, they are an option if you have exhausted all your other financial aid avenues and still feel like you don’t have enough money to pay for college. Before taking out private loans, take out the maximum amount of money offered to you in federal loans as a part of your financial aid package. Federal loans are backed and insured by the government and are student friendly. Private loans don’t always play so nicely.

Don’t forget about tax credits.

Though tax credits will not lower your tuition at the beginning of each year, they can provide tax breaks when it comes time to file your taxes. The American Opportunity Credit allows you to claim $2,500 per student per year for the first four years of postsecondary enrollment. The Lifetime Learning Credit allows you to claim $2,000 per student per year for any school-related costs. The catch is that you can only claim one educational credit per student each year, but catching a break on taxes is definitely something to celebrate!

Page last updated: 05/2019