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  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) early even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for financial aid. The FAFSA becomes available every October 1.
  • With so many deadlines to keep track of, stay organized so you don’t miss out on any opportunities.
  • Look beyond federal student aid for other sources of free money, including additional scholarships, and negotiate or appeal your financial aid award if it’s not enough.

One of the more daunting parts of the college planning process for parents is applying for financial aid. After all, college is a huge expense and the financial aid offers you receive can have a big impact on your family’s finances. So, it’s important to do whatever you can to increase your chances of getting a good package. Start by following these college financial aid tips.

1. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) early

The FAFSA is key to securing federal financial aid. Even if you don’t expect to be eligible, you should still fill it out because schools use the information to determine eligibility for grants, scholarships, work-study awards, state and institutional aid, and federal student loans.

You may be surprised to find out that you do qualify for some type of federal financial aid. More than 80% of college freshmen receive some sort of financial aid, according to the Education Data Initiative. Since some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, fill out the form early to increase your chances for financial aid. It becomes available on October 1 of each year. Another way to help boost your chances of getting financial aid is to avoid common mistakes when filling out the FAFSA.

2. Stay organized

It's a good idea to check the school's financial aid website for deadlines that are earlier than federal or state deadlines. This way, you avoid missing out on school-administered financial aid such as work-study programs. You’ll also want to track these deadlines along with any others like scholarship deadlines. Find an organizational system that works for both you and your student, whether that’s a shared calendar or a spreadsheet.

Additionally, carefully read through all the application requirements with your student. Some schools may request extra paperwork; make sure to collect and submit the requested documentation on time.

3. Think beyond freshman year and reapply

Federal student aid is granted on a year-by-year basis. That means that you must fill out the FAFSA every year. If your financial aid package includes scholarships or grants, find out whether you can expect to continue receiving those funds in future years. Also, your student should continue to search for and apply for scholarships throughout their college career.

4. Look for special discounts and programs

Hundreds of colleges and scholarship programs require the CSS Profile® to award their own grants and scholarships. By filling out the CSS Profile, you uncover additional grants and scholarships not included in the FAFSA. In addition to traditional forms of financial aid, your state or school may offer other ways to save on tuition. For example, you may be eligible for a discount if more than one member of the family will be enrolled at the same college or university simultaneously. Your job or military status may qualify your student for a discount. And some states have exchange programs that allow students to pay in-state tuition at another state’s school.

5. Ask for more help if you need it

If you receive your award letter and the amount given is less than you expected, you can negotiate for additional aid. And if your family experiences an event that significantly impacts the amount of money available for college costs, such as losing a job, death, or divorce, reach out to the financial aid office to find out your options for appealing. They may be able to help you secure additional funds.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

CSS Profile® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

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