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8 Tips for Applying for Financial Aid for College Bound High School Seniors

Widening Perception
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While January 1, 2011 marks the deadline to apply to college for many colleges across the country it also signals the beginning of the financial aid process for the 2011-2012 school year.  Increasingly, for many college bound high school seniors, what they are able to get for financial aid will largely determine what college they attend. During #CollegeChat, Sharon McLaughlin, a college planning consultant and financial aid expert and founder of McLaughlin Education Consulting (http://www.headforcollege.com) provided her best tips for college bound high school seniors to ensure the best financial aid package.

1. Apply for Financial Aid early. In order to have the best chance to receive the best financial aid package possible, students need to make sure they apply for financial aid as soon as possible. College Financial Aid Offices have a fixed amount of institutional aid to dispense each year. In addition, many states have their own deadlines for students to complete the FAFSA in order to be eligible for state funds.

2. Understand what falls underneath Financial Aid. Grants, loans, institutional scholarships, and work study make up a typical financial aid package. Grants and scholarships are not paid back so are generally considered the most desirable forms of financial aid.

3. Fill out the FAFSA. In order to begin the financial aid process you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  In order to be considered for any financial aid—even institution based scholarships as well as merit aid scholarships—families must fill out this form. Although the 2011-2012 FAFSA on the Web Worksheet isn’t available yet you can review the 2010-2011 worksheet to review the materials you will need to have to apply.

4. Find out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is what the government says a family and student should pay based on family income and assets. The EFC is determined by the information a family reports on the FAFSA application. Families and students need to understand that the EFC is merely a starting point and colleges can award money however they want.  If you haven’t filled out the FAFSA yet, you can get an estimate of your EFC through CollegeBoard.com online EFC calculator at http://apps.collegeboard.com/fincalc/efc_welcome.jsp?noload=Y . FinAid.com provides both a federal and institutional calculator at http://www.finaid.org/calculators/finaidestimate.phtml.

5. Find out if you need to complete the CSS Financial Aid PROFILE. A number of private colleges and universities require students to fill out a CSS Financial Aid PROFILE. You should be able to easily determine whether the college you have applied to does by going to their financial aid section on their web site. If in doubt, contact the college financial aid office directly.

6. Remember all students are eligible for financial aid regardless of income. “One of the biggest myths about financial aid is that my parents make too much,” said McLaughlin. “All students are eligible for financial aid even if it’s only Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loans. Families that make over $200,000 per year may qualify for loans and non need based scholarships and grants.”

7. What can you do if your parents refuse to fill out the FAFSA. “Parents who refuse to file the FAFSA only hurt the student,” said McLaughlin. “No FAFSA means no aid in most circumstances. Students should not try to get parent information on the sly. A parent signature is needed in order to file the FAFSA and falsifying the FAFSA is a federal crime.”

According to the FAFSA web site, “Under very limited circumstances, an otherwise dependent student may be able to submit the FAFSA without parental information due to special circumstances.” To find out if you fall under special circumstances you can review http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/faq002.htm#faq002_3 .

8. How to appeal a financial aid decision. In the event a family’s situation has changed financially due to a job loss or other reasons, a student should appeal to the financial aid office for a review. McLaughlin recommends the first step should be to call the financial aid office and explain what has happened and how to go about appealing the financial aid package.

Sharon McLaughlin is a former college administrator with more than twenty years of experience in student enrollment services. Sharon draws her expertise from her work at private and public colleges in New England, both as a college admissions and financial aid administrator. Sharon holds a MEd in Adult Education and was the first professional college planning consultant in Central Massachusetts the designation of Certified College Planning Specialist (CPPS) from the National Institute of Certified College Planers (NICCP).

About #CollegeChat

#CollegeChat is a live bi-monthly conversation intended for teens, college students, parents, and higher education experts on Twitter. #CollegeChat takes place on the first and third Tuesday of the month at 6 pm Pacific/ 9 pm Eastern. Questions for each #CollegeChat edition can be sent to Theresa Smith, the moderator of #CollegeChat via http://Twitter.com/collegechat , by entering questions online on the CollegeChat Facebook page at http://ht.ly/1XIqV , or by email. More detailed information about signing up for Twitter and participating in #Collegechat  can be found at  http://pathwaypr.com/how-to-participate-in-a-twitter-chat .CollegeChat can also be found on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/collegechat .


  1. A great column on the fundamentals of financial aid. Simple, forthright solutions in the search for $$$$ to finance that college degree. Thank you, College Chat!


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