Mastering the Financial Aid Process

If you ask someone about the financial aid process, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) often comes to mind. While the FAFSA is a key piece in the financial aid process, it shouldn’t be the starting point. Searching for outside scholarships can begin during a student’s junior year and is something that should continue until college graduation. Making first college visits and learning about financial aid opportunities and deadlines is also something that should be done prior to the senior year of high school as some deadlines are in the fall of a student’s senior year.

Timing and Information Gathering

October 1st marks the opening of the FAFSA for the upcoming financial aid year. Prior to completing the FAFSA, both the student and one of their parents (for dependent students) should obtain a FSA User ID at This serves as an electronic signature on the FAFSA and as a means of accessing secure Federal Student Aid websites and loan promissory notes. Students should also collect information necessary to complete the FAFSA including social security numbers, prior year tax returns and/or W-2 statements, bank statements, current value of non-retirement investments, and net worth of properties such as rental units, investment farms, and second homes.

At the time of FAFSA filing, students should check to see if their state and any schools to which they are applying have separate financial aid applications. Some schools may also require the filing of a CSS Profile, which takes an in-depth look at a family’s financial information. When completing the FAFSA, take care in making sure that social security numbers and birth dates are entered correctly. It is also recommended that the IRS Data Retrieval Tool offered within the FAFSA be used to populate selected values from student and parent tax returns. This insures accuracy and completeness.

Additional Documentation

Once the FAFSA is filed, submit any additional documentation a school may request in a timely manner. If there are special circumstances that affect your or your parent’s ability to contribute towards your educational expenses, be sure to contact each of the schools you plan to attend to alert them to your situation. They may be able to consider your change in financial circumstances, but will require you to provide documentation supporting your situation.

Colleges and universities to which you have been admitted will provide you with a financial aid offer based on the FAFSA and/or other documents they have requested. This offer may be mailed to you or viewed via a secure portal. The offer will contain each form of assistance you are eligible to receive and should detail any remaining costs that you would be required to pay. Each offer will contain instructions on securing the funds you have been awarded.

If you have any questions regarding the financial aid process, you are not alone!  Be sure to ask those questions as they arise during the process.

Timeliness in financial aid is key!