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Especially when you’re first starting the college process, it’s hard to know exactly who to talk to about your financial aid questions. Financial aid can be really confusing to newcomers, but there’s a few steps you can take to help you learn the ropes a little easier.

Your Parental Unit(s)/Guardian

Some student’s parents pay for their tuition, and some don’t. Some students have help with a portion of their tuition. It’s important that you know where you stand so that you can figure out if you need to apply for financial aid or not. Talking to your parents about what sort of help you may or may not be getting from them will also help you budget how much money you might need to take out in loans or spend on groceries, extra-curriculars, etc. You will also need tax and household income information from your parents (until you’re 23, unless you’re listed as independent) to fill out financial aid forms.

The FAFSA Website

After establishing whether or not you’ll need financial aid to go to school, you have two paths. If you don’t need financial aid you can stop here, but if you do, the FAFSA is your new frenemy best friend. Fill it out ASAP at the beginning of the year once your taxes are filed. MARCH 1ST IS THE PRIORITY DEADLINE. If caps lock isn’t enough to capture your attention for this urgent message, the fact that if you do not submit your FAFSA by March 1st, you may not receive any grants, might. So make like Nike and just do it. If you need some help filling out the FAFSA (in which case, don’t fret, it can be confusing!) here is the FAFSA’s help website.

Your School’s Financial Aid Department

If financial aid and money are primary concerns for you, I recommend making an appointment to go speak with someone from your school’s financial aid department. (If you live far away from your school, this can be done over email as well.) When I was first starting out dealing with my own finances, I got in with the assistant director of my school’s department and she explained everything to me, and even laid out a 4-year plan with estimates and options of how I would be able to pay for my 4 years in school. In fact, I would not have been able to make it through my sophomore year without her because she informed me about options I didn’t know were previously available to me. I encourage you to do the same for your own benefit! If you need an idea of what sort of questions you might need to ask (but can’t actually think of), here are some ideas of important things to know:

  • When financial aid offers will be sent to students,
  • What grants or loans you’re eligible for,
  • Which loans have higher interest rates,
  • If there’s any merit-based financial aid you can receive,
  • How to set up a payment plan,
  • How financial aid gets billed and when your government aid will go through,
  • How financial refunds will get back to you, and
  • If federal work study is an option for you

In Some Cases, Your School’s Business Office

Like I’ve said before, financial aid can be very tricky. Some forms of aid have to be processed through the business office rather than the financial aid office itself. These can include scholarships and prepaid college plans. If you have any other form of aid that isn’t covered by the FAFSA or loans, it might be a good idea to contact the business office just to ensure everything will be properly deposited into your account when the semester starts. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

I hope these tips give you a few ideas that will motivate you to take charge of your financial aid. Not many people are the biggest fans of dealing with financial aid and money (or lack thereof), but the earlier you start planning for college the more money you can save!

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the author

Allison Capley is an editor, college life writer, and a member of James Madison University’s class of 2016 in Harrisonburg, Virginia. At JMU she studies Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication, with a minor in Health Communication. Allison’s favorite hobby is horseback riding. In the future, she aspires to live life to the fullest and obtain a career in medical and pharmaceutical writing.

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