Congrats, you're in! After years of preparing for college and months of applying to different schools, you've made your choice and are gearing up for freshman year. As your first year of college comes into focus, you'll need to put together a solid plan for how to pay for everything. And as you've probably discovered, financial aid can be a great help, but it's also new territory.
There are many online financial aid resources, and most schools offer guides, checklists, and orientation events to give families an overview of how it works. But if you need more specific information about your award, you'll want to schedule a one-on-one meeting with a counselor. You can generally set up a time to meet in person or on the phone. You can also take advantage of office drop-in hours if you live close enough.
Dedicated time with a financial aid counselor can be an enormously helpful learning experience. Here are some ways to prep for your first financial aid meeting to ensure you get the support you need and kick off your first year of college right.
Before you reach out to your new financial aid office, gather all the relevant documents and information you may need, including your college-specific financial aid award letter, any correspondence from the financial aid office, your student ID or social security number, and your Student Aid Report. Start a folder to keep track of all communication and these key papers. While you're at it, log in to your student portal and make sure the school has your correct contact information.
If you have a university email address, be sure to check it often. There may also be a few documents that arrive by mail. Keep track of those, too, and compare them with your digital correspondence before your meeting to ensure you have the full picture.
Review your financial aid offer closely
Take a close look at the award letter you have been offered. What's the breakdown of your award? Is there information about how it will be applied? Are there any requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA? Grab a clean sheet of paper and start to take notes on the kinds of funding (scholarships, grants, and types of loans), amounts, and requirements of your award. Jot down key deadlines and any terms you don't understand. Try looking up definitions online before your meeting and if some terms are still unclear, follow up with your counselor.
If you or your parents anticipate taking out student loans, consider using some of your time with the counselor to ask about what's available to your family. You'll want to get a solid understanding of types of loans, interest rates, terms of the loans, and more. This information, along with some simple calculations, will help you compare loans and give you a realistic perspective on what you will actually pay over the life of any loan.
Think about what's changed
If you're listed as a dependent for FASFA purposes, you'll want to determine if your family's finances have changed in any way since you received your award letter. This may include a job loss, major financial setback, or anything else that you think should lower your Expected Family Contribution. Check in with your family to identify any problem areas and use your financial aid meeting to discuss your family's finances. You could potentially ask for more aid.
Know your numbers
Now that you've reviewed your award letter, it's time to figure out how much money you will really need. This is a great time to sit down as a family to create a budget. Begin by breaking down your cost of attendance. This should cover tuition and fees, books and school supplies, housing, transportation, anything you'll need to maintain your lifestyle (eating out, clothes, going out with friends, etc.), and any future educational goals for which you want to start saving. Some costs are fixed like institutional tuition and fees. Others are more flexible like books, housing, transportation, and more. After you list these costs, calculate what your family needs to fund:
Cost of attendance − Gift aid offered = Net cost (What you will need to cover)
This is your baseline number. You can always go back to your budget to adjust those flexible costs as needed. The goal is to get a sense of your college costs for this year, and start to project costs for future years, so you can research sources of aid to pay for your college experience with your financial aid counselor.
Create a checklist of questions
You probably have a lot information at this point. Now it's time to switch gears. What questions do you have? Write those down and start a list. This will help ensure you stay on track during your financial aid meeting. Some helpful questions to consider include:
- Are there any other sources of financial aid I can apply for on campus?
- When will my financial aid or loan money be distributed to my account? These dates may differ depending on the source of aid (grants, loans, or scholarships).
- Are there any costs I need to pay for up front, before my financial aid is distributed? These might include housing deposits.
- When will any refunds be distributed? If you have leftover financial aid funds after your institutional costs have been paid, you will receive a refund that can be used for other educational costs.
As you prepare for your first meeting, remember that campus financial aid experts hold a wealth of information and are ready to help – so don't be afraid to tap into their expertise. Investing time to prepare for your meeting by getting organized, reviewing your offer letter, and creating a budget will make your financial aid meeting more valuable. It can also help lay the foundation for a successful financial future long after you graduate.