Financial aid is an added form of torture that colleges and the government have added onto every college applicant and college student. Applying for financial aid is only part of the battle; arguments with the financial aid office will occur at one point or another during the process of applying, receiving, and accepting financial aid.

How to Prepare to Apply for Financial Aid

The first step in preparing to apply for financial aid is to talk to your parents about funding for college. They need to tell you what they are willing to pay, if they are able to in the first place. If they are not willing to talk to you about their financial situation, give them the names of the schools on your list and have them look at the Net Price Calculators themselves and tell you which ones are “affordable” for your family.

The next step is to see how much each college on your list will cost you and your family. Net Price Calculators are financial aid calculators the government requires every school in the United States to have somewhere on their website. The easiest way to locate a college’s calculator is by Googling “(insert college’s name here) net price calculator”. Follow the steps and fill out everything to the best of your ability. Use this to your advantage. The last thing your family can do is get their tax information ready. The FAFSA and CSS Profile expect original numbers to be estimates. Your family can go in and change the information once their taxes have been done. It’s best for your parent or parents to have whoever does their taxes do an estimated report for them.

Common Financial Aid Terminology

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) comes out on January 1st of every year. Applicants should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible that way they will be able to receive as much funding as possible from a college or university. It is a free application (hence the name) and only takes your parents’ financial information (or your custodial parents information if your parents are divorced) and your financial information into account. Every college in the United States accepts this form and you will not be given financial aid if this form is not filled out.

The CSS Profile is a product of College Board. It is an additional financial aid document that many colleges and universities use to assess need. It costs $25 for one score report and $16 for each additional report. Look at the financial aid section for each college on your list to see which ones require the CSS Profile. Unlike the FAFSA, you can fill this out up until the deadline for financial aid at each school (so make sure to check out when that is!). If your parents are divorced the CSS Profile also looks at your noncustodial parent’s financial information.

custodial parent is the parent you live with, or have lived with for the past year.

noncustodial parent is the parent you do not live with.

Different Types of Funding

1. A PELL Grant is for students who demonstrate need. Not every student in need will receive a PELL Grant, and amounts differ. If your family’s income is under $30,000 and they have very little in assets, you will receive the full PELL Grant. The PELL Grant is distributed by the government. You do not have to repay your PELL grant nor do you have to keep a certain GPA in order to receive it. However, you do have to be enrolled full time in school to receive the full amount. If you qualify for a PELL Grant there is a good chance that you also qualify for other types of federal or state funding.

2. An outside scholarship can be given to you by any organization or person. Outside scholarships are a great way to reduce the amount of loans you or your parents have to take out.

3. A merit scholarship is granted by the university or college you have been admitted to you. You will most likely be notified that you will be receiving this money at the time that you are accepted. You do not have to pay back any type of scholarship from any organization or school, but you will likely have to keep a certain GPA in order to receive your merit scholarship every year.

4. A Direct Subsidized Loan is offered to students who demonstrate need. While interest rates vary (let’s all slow clap it out for our senators), the government does not expect you to start paying back this loan until six months after you have graduated…or dropped out…and they will pay the interest on the loan while you are in school. Once you have stopped attending school, interest will start to accrue.

5. A Direct Unsubsidized Loan is offered to everyone who applies for financial aid regardless of need. It accrues interest while you are in college and you are only allowed to take out a certain amount each year.

6. A PLUS Loan can only be taken out by your parents. They can only take out what you owe after any grants or scholarships have been given to you. Beware! This loan has a high interest rate!

7. A Perkins Loan is offered to students who demonstrate significant financial need. Not all schools are participants in the Perkins Loan program. It has a lesser interest rate than the Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans.

8. Private Loans are given to students who have two co-signers. The amount is determined by private banks.

9. Work-study jobs are offered to students who have financial need. The government pays for a certain portion of your salary while the school pays for the other part. There is a set number of hours that the student cannot work more than.

Special Cases

If your parents demonstrate significant financial need and don’t have a good credit history, there is a chance that you will not be allowed to take out a private loan to close the gap between the aid you are already receiving and the amount it will cost you to go to a certain school. In this case, your parents or parent can then apply for a PLUS Loan. They will then be denied the loan by the government too because it will be too risky for them. (Note: Don’t take this personally. It’s just business.) The government will then offer you an additional loan that has the same interest rates as the Direct Unsubsidized Loan.

Good luck!

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the author

Sarah Wiszniak is a student at the University of Connecticut. She is a college writer and video blogger for The Prospect, a national video blogger for, and has her own college admissions blog. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys pondering political theory, crafting, and taking meaningless Buzzfeed quizzes. Her favorite flowers are daisies and she plans on ruling Washington, D.C. one day.

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