While applying to college, you should also apply for financial aid, if necessary, to help you pay for college. The sooner you apply for financial aid, the sooner you will know how much to expect. This information may make a big difference in which college you ultimately choose to attend.
The most important application on that front is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA. The FAFSA is used by most schools to determine your eligibility for need-based scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and loans. By filling out the FAFSA, you’re applying for student aid at almost any school in the country. The most important thing to know about the FAFSA is that you need to apply as early as possible—the application opens on January 1 of each year, and you should fill it out as close as possible to this date in order to obtain maximum funds.
Your parents or guardians will need to either provide their tax return for the year just ended or use their prior year’s return in order to complete your FAFSA application—which means they may need to be prepared to file their taxes earlier than many people typically plan for. Because federal funds are involved and can run out, there is an advantage to getting your financial aid application in as early as possible.
You should also always meet with your school counselor to review options for merit-based aid, which can include private scholarships, specific scholarships offered by your state, and specific aid offered by the college you are applying to. Full-ride scholarships are attractive, but competition will often be fierce for these awards. Many local organizations offer smaller scholarships and applying for as many of them as possible can result in your having enough total money for college. Be sure to ask about them, but keep in mind that these may not be renewable after the initial award is made.
Getting value for your degree matters a lot in the real world. Don’t spend 120k per year for an engineering degree at an Ivy League not known for engineering when the state school costs 20k or 30k per year. Your college and GPA will mostly help you get just one job—and then your application of your degree and your work ethic will carry you the rest of the way. -Tad M., Duke TIP alum