By Sasha Jones, 19, Crossroads School (2008 graduate)
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As relieved as I felt when I sent in the last of my college applications, I knew that I had one more application process ahead of me—financial aid. Applying for financial aid was difficult, but with my dad’s assistance, it turned out to be completely manageable. I wanted to write this article to show other teens that the financial aid process is doable and worth it.

Once I started the process in January, I found out that it is usually slightly different for each school, so it’s important to look closely at each school’s website. They should each have a “Financial Aid” link in the admissions section of the site, which leads you to directions for how to apply.

Sasha’s tips for successfully navigating the financial aid process
1. Keep track of the dates. Make a list for each school outlining what needs to be sent in when.

2. Communicate with your parents. They have the information you need. And let them know in advance what you need help with.

3. Start early. Figure out what you need to do in the fall, instead of waiting until you’re done with college applications. Otherwise you might run out of steam.

4. Research outside scholarships (try and apply for them. I didn’t do this, but some of my friends did and received money to put toward college. These are also helpful for people whose parents make too much money to qualify for financial aid but who still need help paying for college.

My dad filled in most of the forms, since he had the family tax returns, his and my mom’s annual incomes, etc. My job was to scour the schools’ sites, finding the instructions and printing all the information we needed. We ended up with dozens of pages that we filed in a folder my dad kept in his desk. I also had to keep track of the dates. Each school had a different deadline. I kept a list of the due dates for each school on my computer that I could check off when I sent them in.

For some schools (including all the ones I applied to), the first step involved filling out a College Scholarship Services (CSS) Financial Aid PROFILE, due in mid-February (but earlier for a couple of my schools). The profile can be filled out online, through the College Board website, at Filling it out was tedious—it included a pre-application and it cost $5, plus $18 for each college you have them send the profile to. (Some people are eligible for a fee waiver.) Luckily, the same profile gets sent to every school so you only have to fill it out once. This application requires details about your family’s finances, which I got from my dad, as well as basic contact information. The profile is used in conjunction with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Completing a profile is especially important if you apply early decision, since those applications are due months before a FAFSA is typically filed.

Every school requires that you submit the FAFSA for the financial aid application. You have to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for the three types of financial aid from the federal government: Stafford Loans, Perkins Loans and Pell Grants.

The Stafford Loan can be subsidized (which means the government pays the interest while you’re in school) or unsubsidized (which means you pay the interest while you’re in school). Anyone is eligible for the unsubsidized loan, but you have to prove financial need to receive the subsidized loan. Perkins Loans are also need-based. Both types of loans must be paid back, whereas Pell Grants do not.

I filled this out online, at My dad and I each had to create personal identification numbers (PIN) first, which we used to “sign” our forms. For most of my schools, the FAFSA was due at the beginning of March. Depending on when your form is due, you might have to fill out the FAFSA using estimated income information since your parents might not have filed their taxes yet.

Overloaded with forms

Each school also requested a number of other forms, and keeping track of all the different ones and how to submit them gave me a headache at times. Some schools required forms about sharing information with my guardians, which seemed silly considering that my dad was by my side while I filled out all the applications. While this didn’t apply to me, if your parents are divorced, you might have to fill out a Non-Custodial Parent Statement. Most of these forms weren’t too difficult though, and mostly involved a lot of signatures.

Each school asked for a copy of my parents’ signed 2007 federal tax returns; some even asked for the returns from the year before. Some of the schools wanted me to mail the forms directly to them, while others wanted me to send them through a documentation service called IDOC. Carleton College wanted the returns sent to IDOC by early February, while Oberlin College wanted them sent directly to the college by mid-April. With all these different instructions, I recommend making a list with the requirements for each school, so you can check them off and make sure you’re not forgetting anything. I kept one copy of the list on my computer and my dad had another copy.

While the process was often frustrating, what with all the busywork and number crunching, which left my dad and I needing the occasional break, it was all worth it when I got my financial aid packages in the mail. I received scholarships and aid at all of the schools I was accepted to. It may be disappointing to have to fill out yet another application once you’ve finally finished those college apps. But submitting these forms on time is essential to affording college, and it will be a huge relief when you’re done. All in all, I was working on the applications from January to April, but it’s not a constant process—it just involves paying attention to the details. Don’t forget, you’ll still have to fill out the FAFSA every year you’re in college, but just for one school—so it does get easier.

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