If you’re a junior in High School, you know a thing or two about deadlines. Students are always on deadlines, whether it’s for homework assignments, studying for tests, and now—applying to colleges.
In fact, this is the deadline gauntlet you’ve been training for. Not only will you have deadlines applying to college, but deadlines in applying for student loans and other sources of funding for college.
With so many deadlines to meet, CommonBond has developed a timeline of the most important dates to help you successfully secure the financial aid you need to make your plans and dreams a reality.
It’s important to understand that waiting until the last minute can mean missed opportunities. For example, some scholarships and federal aid are released on a first-come-first-served basis.
JUNIOR YEAR AND SUMMER
Consider the cost of schools you want to attend
Scholarships and loans are important. But considering what schools you might like to attend should be your first priority.
Go to the library and consult with resources like the Princeton Review’s The Best 384 Colleges or the Fiske Guide to Colleges. U.S. News and World Report also publishes tons of information on colleges, rankings, and admissions guidelines, much of which can be found online.
Take notes while researching schools, especially concerning the cost of attendance. Be sure to research both the “sticker price” and what the average student pays after aid.
Apply for scholarships
It’s never too early to look for scholarships!
Private scholarships—such as scholarships from corporations and private endowments—have deadlines all throughout the year. Use summer to get a jumpstart on applications before the school year gets busy with school and financial aid applications.
Mark down important deadlines
Get in the habit of using a physical calendar. Digital phone apps and online calendars with notifications are great, but keeping a separate permanent record can help discipline your search and underscore the importance of the application process.
Once you’ve narrowed your search to only the schools that have your interest, add each school’s application deadline to your calendar. It was a life-saver to have all these dates laid out on a big desk calendar in my bedroom where I did my homework.
The books you checked out from the library will include information about deadlines. In addition, every school’s website has a page dedicated to undergraduate admissions, including important deadlines.
Make sure also to write down deadlines for student aid applications, including which aid application each school requires—the FAFSA, CSS, or something else.
Apply for your FSA ID
In October, students applying for federal student aid will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In fact, some schools will require the FAFSA, even if you’re not planning on applying for student aid.
You can’t complete the FAFSA in September, but you should register for an FSA ID now. Having an FSA ID will allow you to complete your FAFSA online more easily when the time comes. To create your FSA ID, go to the Federal Student Aid website and follow the instructions.
FAFSA window opens
For the 2019-2020 school year, students may turn in their completed FAFSA anytime between October 1st and June 30th.
Remember, the FAFSA is a requirement to be considered for federal student aid, and many states and schools use the FAFSA to determine their aid offers. Every student should fill out the FAFSA.
You do not have to complete the FAFSA when the doors open on October 1st. However, some aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so the sooner, the better,
Filling out the FAFSA in October—before you apply to any of the schools you’ve selected—may seem out of sync, but don’t worry. Simply list all the schools you are planning to apply to on the designated area of the FAFSA. There is no penalty if you decide later not to apply to any of those schools. For more in-depth information on filling out the FAFSA, here’s a great guide.
Review your SAR
Submitting your FAFSA will automatically generate a Student Aid Report (SAR).
If you choose to receive your SAR electronically, you can expect it within 3 to 5 days; if you chose to have your SAR mailed, it should arrive within 7 to 10 days. Your SAR will restate the information you provided on your FAFSA.
First, review it for accuracy. Next, look for the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Schools use the EFC to determine how much aid they will offer.
If you spot a mistake on your SAR, make a correction to your FAFSA as soon as possible. The deadline for updates is September 14th, 2019, but don’t wait until then. You want schools to have correct information, so they can make accurate aid determinations in the spring.
Submit a CSS profile
Most private colleges use the College Scholarship Service (CSS) to determine nonfederal aid. Private schools have their own systems of distributing scholarship money, independent of the grants and loans provided by the government. As a result, state and public colleges use the FAFSA to make financial aid decisions, while private colleges use the CSS.
Here are some important considerations to keep in mind:
- Sticker shock is common when applying to private colleges, but some of these schools may offer more in scholarship aid than state or public colleges.
- The CSS application provides more consideration for personal information than the FAFSA. For example, there is a written section that allows you to provide detailed information about any relevant family circumstances.
Fill out the CSS as early as October 1st. CSS submission deadlines for most schools will be sometime in the early spring. Check each school’s website to be sure.
Here’s a list of the schools that use the CSS to determine eligibility for financial aid. You should also be able to find this information on each school’s admissions website.
Fill out the CSS here. To access the form, use the same College Board login you may have used to view your PSAT, SAT, or ACT scores. Often, schools will ask that in addition to your CSS form you upload relevant documents, such as tax returns, using a system called IDOC.
November and December
Both school and scholarship application deadlines will start arriving before you know it. I remember spending most of my Thanksgiving and winter holiday breaks working on applications.
Give yourself lots of time to process applications and revise personal essays (and revise them again).
January and February
Finish up aid applications
If you haven’t filled out the FAFSA and CSS, January and February would be a great time.
If you complete and submit these applications at the beginning of the year, you should receive aid information in time to compare financial aid offers alongside acceptance letters.
Some state or public schools may require additional documentation or applications in addition to the FAFSA. It’s a ton of organizational work, yes, but check (and double-check) what each of your prospective schools requires to process both your entrance application and the student aid application.
Look out for acceptance letters and compare offers
Congratulations! Thanks to all your hard work completing applications and meeting deadlines, you were accepted to a school—or even a handful of schools. Take a big, deep breath; pat yourself on the back; and prepare to compare offers.
For some students, choosing which school’s offer to accept will be easy. For others, it may be more complicated.
If you’re in the latter category, line up all of your offers and aid packages side-by-side:
- Compare what you like and what you don’t like about each school, including their financial aid offers.
- Consider including a trusted adult such as a parent or college counselor.
- Determine how much you’ll need to pay, out of pocket, for each school.
- Remember, scholarship and grant money are better options than loans, which you’ll have to pay back.
Make a financial plan
Once you’ve narrowed it down to one or two choices, start thinking about a financial plan. Generally, this step will lead to one of two options:
- You received enough aid to cover tuition and other costs—that’s fantastic.
- You didn’t receive as much aid as you had hoped.
If the second option applies, don’t worry—it’s not the end of the road.
First, contact the school and ask for an increase in the amount of federal aid you receive. They may ask you for a written explanation, but don’t be afraid to ask for more. Asking a school to reconsider their offer is well within your rights. Remember, they accepted you as a student, so you know they want you to attend! Contact an admissions counselor for details about asking for a reconsideration.
Next, if after accepting scholarships, grants, and federal loans you are still in need of additional funding, consider private loans. Private loans are issued by banks or other lenders and are not subsidized by the government.
Historically, private loans have had higher interest rates and less flexible terms than either federal subsidized or unsubsidized loans. But the financial landscape is changing as new online-only lenders such as CommonBond shake up the industry by making equitable private loans available to students.
Accept an offer
A reply to acceptance letters will be due sometime in spring. Make sure you send yours in on time. Don’t forget to take a moment to celebrate this incredible accomplishment.
Apply for private loans
Once you’ve decided on the school you’ll attend, finalize plans on any remaining funding gaps.
As mentioned earlier, you may need to acquire additional school loans from a private lender. If so, work on this step through the summer, so you’ll be set by fall when school starts.
Hopefully, you’ve filled out your FAFSA before now, but enrollment does stay open until June 30th. If you haven’t already, fill out your FAFSA now to see if you’re eligible for federal aid.
FAFSA registration remains open through September 14th, 2019, to allow students to make corrections or changes. If you experience any one of these changes, update your FAFSA form:
- You received enough aid to cover tuition and other costs—that’s fantastic.
- A change in your dependency status.
- Sometimes, a change in your marital status (check with you school’s financial aid office).
- If you are selected for verification, you may have to update FAFSA if the number of people in your household or number of people in your household attending college changes.
Done with all of these steps? You made it! You should be proud—you made it through the deadline obstacle course. Some say that applying for college is even more difficult than going to college.
Truly, your success in navigating a somewhat difficult financial aid system (with lots of deadlines) bodes well for you future, not only in college, but into your professional life as well. Congratulations.
Enjoy your time at college and make the most of this incredible opportunity to learn and grow.