Tips for Maximizing Your Financial Aid

Colleges run out of money so turn in applications early. The deadlines for turning in financial aid applications vary by college. You want to turn in your FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1. The reason is that colleges have a limited amount of financial aid. If you turn in the applications late, even if you deserve aid, you may not get it simply because the college ran out of money.

Use estimates if you haven't finished your taxes. To complete your financial aid forms you need to provide information from your tax forms. Since taxes are not due until April 15 and many people wait until April 14 to do them, it is not surprising that many students wait until they get their taxes done before filling out the financial aid forms. This is a huge mistake since it could mean turning in the financial aid forms past the college's deadline. Use estimates on your financial aid forms since you can always revise those numbers with actual numbers once you finish your taxes. Better yet, do your taxes early this year. It's much cleaner to use real numbers so that there won't be any surprises.

Think about financial aid early–at least a year before you start school. Remember that all of the numbers used in financial calculations come from the previous tax year. If you are starting college in September 2011, then your tax return from 2010 will be the basis for that first year. Therefore, if you wait until January 2011 to think about financial aid, it will be too late to do anything that will affect the outcome of your first year. (Of course, you could still do things to affect your financial aid for your second year in school.)

You must apply for financial aid every year. Financial aid is determined on a year-by-year basis. That means that even if you didn't get financial aid this year you should apply next year since your finances will have changed, especially after paying for one year of tuition. Some students find that after the first or second year of college they have reduced their income and assets to the point where they qualify for financial aid. There is a Renewal FAFSA that you may use, which saves a lot of time when applying for aid the next year.

If you need more, don't be shy about asking for a re-evaluation. If you feel that the amount of financial aid that you are offered by a college is simply nowhere near enough, you can ask for a re-evaluation. For the re-evaluation to be effective, provide the financial aid office with concrete reasons why their initial assessment was wrong. Start with a letter or call to the financial aid office. Be sure that you have all of your documents ready, and remember that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If you don't say anything about the package, the college will assume that you are happy with it.

Get more help with the FAFSA. If you need help completing the FAFSA, visit the U.S. Department of Education website at or call 800-4-FED-AID. The website will take you step by step through the entire process. You may also want to contact the financial aid offices at a few local colleges since many hold free workshops to help students complete the FAFSA.