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How to Apply For College Financial Aid

FAFSA: What It Is and Why It Matters to Your Teen

They've taken their SATs and submitted their college applications, but there is one more form your child needs to fill out before deciding what school to attend — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form determines what type and, most importantly, how much money your child will receive from schools. For many teens, financial aid can be the deciding factor when choosing which college to attend. But before they fill out their FAFSA, they must know exactly what they are applying for. Here, everything you ever needed to know about the FAFSA.

What is FAFSA?

FAFSA is the form that colleges and universities use to determine a student's federal, state, and college-sponsored financial aid package. This aid includes, but is not limited to, grants, educational loans, and work-study programs. In order for a college student to be considered for any financial aid, they must first submit this form.

Who can apply?

Every child is able to apply, provided they:

  • Are a US citizen, a US national, or an eligible noncitizen.
  • Have a valid Social Security Number.
  • Will have a high school diploma or GED by the time they are receiving any potential aid.

How does my child apply?

Your child can apply one of three ways:

It is recommended to use one of the online services, as it is the quickest method. Students are also more likely to make mistakes with the paper version, and the Department of Education rejects any application with mistakes. It is also suggested that students complete a paper form before filling out the online application to ensure all the information is correct.

When is the application deadline?

Each school has its own due date, so it is important for your child to check with the school's financial aid office. Of course, it never hurts to get the form in early! Students can start submitting their FAFSAs as early as Jan. 1 of the upcoming school year. For example, a student entering college in the Fall of 2014 may apply as early as Jan. 1, 2014.

How do we know how much aid he receives?

After the Department of Education receives your child's FAFSA, it will determine his Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or how much money the family is able to put toward his education. Note that this has nothing to do with how much parents are actually willing to give their child. This number is based on factors such as family income and assets, the number of people supported by the family's income, and the number of college students in the family. In general, a lower EFC means more aid.

Once the EFC is calculated, the Department of Education submits this information to the financial aid offices of the schools listed on your child's FAFSA. Using this information, as well as any additional forms, the financial aid offices create a financial aid awards package. The package breaks down the type of aid your child can receive, should they attend that school. Aid can include a mixture of grants, scholarships, work-study programs, college-sponsored aid, and loans. Some of the options, such as loans and grants, may require additional applications from your child.

Will she receive the same amount of money each year?

Not necessarily. Students must resubmit their FAFSA each year they are in college, so if a parent gets a promotion or is laid off, then that can affect how much aid your child will receive that year.

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