Financial Aid 101

The best time to start thinking about financial aid is as early in the year as possible. The application process for grants and scholarships may take a few weeks, so you’ll want to have all your paperwork lined up as soon as possible once you’ve gotten into college.

Most applications require two to three recommendation letters, a personal essay and your school transcripts. Be sure to allow a few weeks for your letters and transcripts to arrive before the application deadline. Your essay should be carefully proofread and ready to send. Get feedback on your essay from guidance counselors or instructors that know you well. That little bit of extra preparation will make your application packet more polished.

Some fellowships and scholarships have application deadlines a year before the funds will be released, so get out your calendar and write down all the application deadline dates so you don’t miss any. Have plenty of copies of your essay, transcripts and recommendation letters on-hand so you can apply as soon as you see a scholarship listing that you qualify for.

Having your documents gathered early in the process will save you time throughout your college career. Most grants and scholarships require you to re-apply every year, so don’t forget this is an ongoing process throughout your college career. Stay organized.

If you’re getting a late start, don’t worry. Application deadlines roll throughout the year. If you miss a deadline you can always make a note on your calendar to apply early the following year. Get your applications in as early as possible. Some grant and scholarship opportunities are reviewed on a first-come basis and you want the best chance at getting an award. For the best shot at the most funds, start researching opportunities early and know exactly what you need to apply. This guide will help you understand what’s available and when you’ll need to apply.

For parents, there are special tax-deferred savings programs to help you plan for your child’s education. It’s never too early to start thinking about and planning for how to pay for college. Even if you’ve only got a year or two to start saving before your child turns 18, it’s still a good idea to know what savings plans are available for college students.

One of the easiest ways to save on college is through education tax credits and deductions. These reduce the amount of tax you owe and in some cases give you an increased refund at the end of the year. There’s no application for tax credits or deductions, but you’ll need to fill out the proper forms when you file your taxes. If you file electronically with tax software it’s as easy as clicking through the Education section of your tax preparation program. 

Merit-based aid is based on your academic performance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be a straight-A student to apply. Other factors are taken into consideration, like extracurricular activities, volunteer work, financial need and professional aspiration. Most public service groups and even professional organizations offer scholarship opportunities every year for students who are interested in public service or particular professions. 

In fact, scholarships of all sizes are available from religious groups, associations, local and regional clubs and military organizations. Most applications are relatively simple to fill out and require only transcripts and one or two letters of recommendation. The small amount of time required to apply is well worth it when you consider you’ll reduce the amount of tuition you’ll have to pay.

When applying for any financial aid, be as organized as possible and follow all the instructions on the application. Be thorough and meet every deadline to give yourself the best chance of success.