When I was getting ready to walk the prestigious halls of higher learning, my biggest worry wasn’t how well I’d do in the larger, harder classes or if I was choosing the right major — it was how I was going to pay for it all. College is a huge expense, hopefully one that will turn out to be a positive investment.
My parents, admittedly not financial professionals, had no idea how to help me apply for financial aid. Would I need to rely solely on loans? Would I be able to get money gifted to me? And what the heck was a work-study?
Though the Internet makes filling out the online FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and finding scholarships loads easier, there are still key things to remember to get the best financial deal possible — and to avoid burying yourself in a hole of debt before you even earn that degree.
The process is different for everyone, but these eight common misconceptions can have a large impact on your financial situation for much longer than the next four years.
- “I don’t need to file for the FAFSA, because I already know I won’t get anything.” Wrong. Wrong. Oh so wrong. The FAFSA is not only FREE — it’s used by the federal government and any schools you send your application to in order to decide how much money to loan or give you. The formula for their decision is confusing, but that also means that a slight change in you or your parents’ information can impact your eligibility for financial help. Even for students whose household income is in the high range, there is still reason to apply. Not every financial account is assumed to be viable for paying for college. If you and your family plan ahead and get guidance from a tax professional, there could be rewards for filling out the FAFSA.
- “The FAFSA isn’t due for weeks. I’ll just get it done by the deadline.” Usually first come, first serve is reserved for buffet lines — but the same holds true for the FAFSA. This form isn’t one to procrastinate. There is only so much money to be doled out — more than $185 billion* — and it’s ready to be handed out at the beginning of the year to many more students when the FAFSA form becomes available. So if you can get it done that first week it’s available, do. You’re financial aid application will have a much better shot at providing you with results.
- “I didn’t get any financial aid last year I applied, so I won’t get anything this year.” That’s not necessarily true. The FAFSA makes you eligible for grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study jobs. Even if you don’t think any of these are important right now, or they didn’t amount to anything in the previous year, financial circumstances may have changed that could make you more eligible to receive gifts, a better rate, or you may even decide to take a work-study job.
- “A few minor errors in my financial application is no big deal.”
Misconception No. 2 is no lie. The faster you get your FAFSA in, the better your chances are for receiving financial aid. When you have errors, your application will be taken out of the bunch for the long process of verification. The online version of the FAFSA has built-in checks, but to be sure, review these common errors:
Leaving a field blank — If it’s zero, then put zero. If you don’t know, contact a parent or professional, or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center.
Failing to report stepparent’s financial information
Incorrect household size — Include yourself in your parents’ household even if you didn’t reside there the previous year.
Marital status — You must be married on or before the date you sign the document.
- “You get what you get.” A college is no different than any other business where you shop. So, why can’t you flex your negotiation skills? First, if you are a desirable candidate, schools take notice if you send your financial aid application to other institutions. This oftentimes will compel the ones that really want you to offer more/better grants and scholarships. If you get an offer that’s nice, but it’s just not nice enough, tell them. You can thank them for the generous offer but emphasize that you really need a little more in order for it to work out. The offer may not get bumped up, but there’s a better chance that the institute will try to work with you to raise it a little more.
- “I’ll just take out a loan.”
Sure, a loan is easier than landing a grant or scholarship — for now. But after you graduate and the high interest rates and payment plans double what you borrowed, you’ll be wishing you spent more time exhausting all of your other financial aid possibilities.
- “I deserve a big-ticket scholarship, so it’ll be easy to get one.” Do you believe it’s easy to win the lottery, too? You’d be smart to agree the odds are slim. And they’re also just as miniscule when you apply for a big-ticket scholarship.
Definitely apply to these that you fit the qualifications for, but apply to many smaller ones you’re eligible for, too. The small ones can really add up. And whatever you get, believe me, you’ll be grateful.
- “FAFSA is all I need to fill out for financial aid.” FAFSA is one thing you don’t want to miss, but there are also other applications you can fill out to better your chances of receiving the financial aid you’re after. Some colleges have their own specific financial aid offerings. Or peruse the 1,000+ websites where you can explore and apply to private scholarships in which you’re eligible. Remember, college should be a fun, rewarding experience. Don’t let the financials get you down from year one. Plan ahead, exert some effort, and you’ll be sure to land the help that’s right for you.