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Image from Pexels

What many people don’t realize before applying to college is how stressful, time consuming, and tedious the financial aid (FA) process can be. With required documents and applications ranging from the FAFSA to the CSS to IDOC, applying for FA can seem like a never ending process.

Being an only child to parents who applied to college over 30 years ago, I came into the college process knowing absolutely nothing about financial aid. However, by the spring of my senior year, I had learned some very important lessons:

1. Being Tax Literate is Important.

The FAFSA and other financial aid documents will ask you about household income and income taxes, assets, savings, etc. Much of this information is found on tax forms; thus, it is important that you actually know how to read a 1040 (an Income Tax Return form) or a W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement). Tax literacy is a lifelong skill that is unfortunately rarely taught in school, so learning it now is extremely crucial.

2. Loans Exist.

Many schools offer loans as part of their financial aid packages. While a school may say that it meets “100% demonstrated need,” that does not mean it will meet this need with grants. The difference between grants and loans is that grants are essentially free money that does not need to be paid back, while loans are money being borrowed, usually from the government. The interest rates on your loans depend on your financial need. For those with very high need, you may receive subsidized stafford loans which do not accrue interest until graduation. Unsubsidized stafford loans have the same interest rate but begin accruing interest while in school. Some people may have to take out private loans, which can have much higher interest rates and penalties.

3. Nothing in Life is Free.

You may have heard the aforementioned expression multiple times before, but it didn’t sink in for me until I discovered I’d have to pay $25 just to complete the CSS and additional $16 (though now it’s even higher) to send to each school. I also didn’t realize how expensive sending ACT and SAT scores would be. Even the words “full ride” can be deceiving. For students who receive such generous financial aid packages, they may still face many other costs, including health insurance, activity and orientation fees, textbooks, and other living expenses — this can add up to several thousand dollars.

For a list of other hidden colleges in the application process, click here.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask.

At my top choice school, I was not offered work study. This was bizarre because every other school I had been accepted to did offer it. I was afraid that if I tried to get work study, the school would get mad at me and rescind my acceptance. I essentially felt guilty asking for more money from I school I liked so much. But then I realized that this school had billions of dollars in its endowment and asking for $2000 more would not break the bank. After writing an appeal letter, I ended up getting work study. The moral of the story is: it never hurts to ask! Worse comes to worse, they’ll just say no.

5. Be Honest.

Honesty is important in any aspect of life. However, when applying for financial aid, being honest is especially important. With that said, don’t lie about how much money your parents make/how many assets your family has/etc. no matter how badly you want money. If your numbers seem off, a college will require you to send in your actual tax forms to verify the information you’ve inputted. And keep in mind that the FAFSA is a federal application, meaning lying on it is technically fraud. The government actually requires colleges to verify a certain number of FAFSAs anyway, so even if you think you’re being clever, chances are you will get caught.

It’s also important to be honest with yourself about your ability to pay for college. While you may have your heart set on a school, if you cannot afford to go there, you need to be realistic about it. While there’s always the option of taking out more loans, at a certain point it does not become worth drowning in debt to go to a college.

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