How to Apply for Financial Aid

on October 5, 2016

Each type of financial aid has a different set of financial aid application forms and deadlines.

Need-based aid depends on financial need, the difference between total college costs and the family’s ability to pay. Ability to pay is measured by the expected family contribution (EFC), which is calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used to apply for need-based financial aid from the federal government, state governments and most colleges and universities.

Some colleges and universities and some state grant programs use supplemental financial aid forms to determine eligibility for their own financial aid funds. About 200 mostly private colleges use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form from the College Board for awarding their own financial aid funds. These colleges must still use the FAFSA for federal and state aid, but use the PROFILE for allocating the college’s grants.

Merit-based aid, such as private scholarships, depends on academic, artistic or athletic talent. It can also depend on strange skills, such as creating a prom costume out of duct tape. Private scholarship providers each have their own application forms and requirements.

To apply for financial aid, follow these steps:


1. Get a FSA ID. The FSA ID is an electronic signature that is used to sign the online FAFSA and access various U.S. Department of Education web sites. Visit to obtain a FSA ID. The student and parent should each obtain their own FSA IDs.

2. File the FAFSA. File the FAFSA even if you think you are ineligible for need-based aid. Visit to file the FAFSA. File the FAFSA as soon as possible on or after the October 1 start date to maximize the amount of aid for which you are eligible. Students who file the FAFSA later may miss some state and college deadlines, especially in states that award state grants on a first-come, first-served basis. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA to transfer income and tax information from your federal income tax return to the FAFSA. This will simplify the FAFSA and reduce your chances of being selected for verification. Print a copy of the confirmation page, which will include your EFC. You should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within a few weeks of filing the FAFSA online, if you provided your email address.

3. File the PROFILE, if necessary. If your college requires the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, file it at

4. Complete Verification. If your FAFSA is selected for verification, complete the verification process as quickly as possible. Colleges are not allowed to disburse financial aid funds until verification is complete.

5. Review the Financial Aid Award Letter. The financial aid award letter lists the types and amounts of financial aid available to you. Be careful to distinguish grants from loans. Calculate the net price by subtracting just the gift aid from the full cost of attendance. Gift aid includes grants, scholarships and other money that does not need to be earned or repaid. The total cost of attendance includes tuition and required fees, room and board, books, supplies and equipment, transportation to and from school and miscellaneous/personal expenses. Compare the net price with the resources available to your family, such as savings, income and loans, to evaluate whether you can afford the college costs.

6. Appeal for More Aid. If your family has special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college, ask the college financial aid administrator for a professional judgment review. Special circumstances include anything that has changed since the tax year upon which the FAFSA is based, as well as anything that differentiates your family from the typical family. You don’t have to wait until you receive your financial aid award letter to appeal for more aid. You can also appeal in the middle of the academic year, if your circumstances change.

7. Search for Scholarships. Search for scholarships on free web sites like Answer the optional questions to match more scholarships. Beware of scholarship scams: if you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam. If you’ve won many scholarships, review the college’s outside scholarship policy, since some colleges will displace private scholarships by reducing the college’s grants.

Apply for financial aid every year, even if you got nothing other than loans last year. Financial aid formulas are complicated, and subtle changes in a family’s circumstances can affect aid eligibility. Student assets are assessed more heavily than parent assets, so eligibility for financial aid can increase when the student’s assets are depleted. There are also some private scholarships that are available only to students who are already enrolled in college. 

Can I get Into...

We Know Your Chances. Do You?

What Are My Chances