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For a senior in high school, the hardest truth to face–admittedly, if you haven’t had to deal with many soul-crushing truths–is that an acceptance to your dream college doesn’t mean anything until you get that financial aid award. Even if your brain’s been accepted, your school and the federal government still need to assess both your pockets and their own. Enter the financial aid application process.

Some students know exactly how to handle the financial aid application process so that they get speedy notification and have ample time to make their decisions. I was not one of those students. I didn’t even hear back about financial aid from a few schools before it came time to make my decision, and while I love my school, I put myself in a situation where I had to make a huge decision with a degree of blindness.

I’m the last person who should be giving advice about what to do to make your financial aid application process smooth and seamless, which is why I’m not going to do that. As an expert in the field of doing financial aid incorrectly, I can only tell you how to make this process as miserable as possible.

1. Misreport Information (Accidentally)

It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway, just in case seventeen-year-old me is out there: Your memory is not a reliable source for tax information. Make sure you have all the documents you need–and make sure to look at them. Even if you’ve typed the same 4 numbers into boxes and blanks fifty-six billion times, it’s probably still worth it to check that the income you’re reporting on the CSS Profile matches what’s written on your W2 form or your parents’ W2 form. Yes, it will take just the slightest bit of energy to ask your parents where their W2 form is and then walk to that location, or to grab it from the stack of papers that is just slightly out of reach on your desk, but that small exertion of energy will save you the anxiety that will smack you in the face once you realize that you submitted your CSS Profile with the claim that you, a high school student working a minimum wage job, made a 5-digit salary last year.

That’s right. I told my school that I made almost $30,000 in a year because I was too lazy to look at my form, and my memory said, “I got this” and threw one too many digits at me. This would not have been a problem at all if I had looked at the question and answer a second time and thought, “Huh, I don’t feel rich…” As a result of this laziness and the consequential mismatch of my FAFSA and CSS Profile, I had to fill out the IDOC.

2. Take Your Sweet Time Sending Your IDOC (or any form)

I see you, reading this TP article instead of filling out your IDOC cover sheet or making copies of your parents’ taxes. Just like your acceptance doesn’t mean anything if all you’ve saved up is 75 cents from your Tooth Fairy fund, your financial aid award doesn’t mean anything without verification from IDOC. The faster you submit this form, the faster you’ll receive meaningful information, and the faster you’ll be able to determine if you can attend this school or not. And if you don’t submit it in a timely fashion, you might not get the information you need in time, forcing you to cross those colleges–the colleges that actually wanted you, and colleges that you actually wanted–right off your list. It’s like a low-stakes adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars where money is cancer (except, not really at all).

3. Be Afraid of Talking to the Financial Aid Office

Again, it should go without saying, but for the sake of seventeen-year-old me, I’ll say it: There is no shame in asking questions. If you don’t know how to answer X or if you should send Y or if Z is pertinent information, send the financial aid office an email, or give them a call. Don’t just guess–like I did, a lot–and hope everything turns out okay, because that will only make the process take longer. Don’t worry about bothering financial aid officers or appearing stupid, because helping you with this madness is their job.

Additionally, if you’re not happy with your financial aid award and think you deserve more for whatever reason, you shouldn’t be afraid of talking to the financial aid office to get an appeal. As they say, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

4. Don’t Save

Just in case the rest of this article hasn’t made it clear, college is expensive. The absolute worst thing you could do is not prepare for it. Even if you fill out everything correctly and on time, it won’t matter if your college is only giving you enough money for half a textbook and you spent your entire savings on 9000 copies of Beyoncé’s latest album. Save up. Think about your spending. Save.

The financial aid process is the absolute worst, and it certainly does not require your assistance in making it more miserable. As long as you keep those 4 “don’t”s in mind–and then don’t do them–you should be able to minimize the tears.

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the author

Gabrielle Scullard hails from suburban Arizona, where she is a senior at a public high school. She spends most of her life taking AP classes and crying about her future. When she is not stressing out about school, she plays viola (it’s like a violin but better) and signs in an American Sign Language choir (it’s like a vocal choir but better). She wants to be a superhero, but an internship at The Prospect is basically the same thing. She hopes her writing can help someone or, at least, make someone smile. You can find her on her Tumblr or at home, but she would prefer it if you didn't do either of those things.

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