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Tackle Financial Aid in 5 Steps

Find the resources you need to successfully apply for financial aid.

Figuring out how to pay for college is usually one of the most daunting things for students. It’s important not to get overwhelmed by the sticker price because there are many resources available to help fund your education.

Here are five steps to get the financial aid process going:

Step #1: Map out your finances.

Determine how much you will need to cover the cost of your education. Although tuition is the most obvious cost, don’t forget to factor in books and room and board.

Step #2: Become familiar with the different types of financial aid.

Financial aid comes in many forms and it is important to know the differences between them. For instance, there is a significant difference between merit-based aid and need-based aid. Merit-based aid is determined by academic performance and student achievement. The most common form of merit-based aid is scholarships (see How to Apply for College Scholarships). Need-based aid is determined by the financial need of the student. It’s also important to understand the differences between loans and grants. Grants do not need to be repaid and are usually based on your financial need while loans are borrowed and must be paid back.

Step #3: Fill out the FAFSA early.

The Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) determines your eligibility for need-based aid and federal student loans. It is highly recommended that you fill it out as soon as it opens for the best options. “Know that the FAFSA is usually the key to all financial aid and needs to be completed each and every year,” said Michelle Standridge, director of financial aid at Spalding University. “FAFSA now opens on Oct. 1 of the year prior to when the awarding will be.”

Step #4: Contact the financial aid office at your institution.

“The best way to apply for financial aid is to contact the financial aid office by phone or email with questions you have,” said Ethan Thornton, Spalding University student and social media ambassador. “Those people are employed in that office for a reason, and it’s to help you. Reach out and they will answer any questions you have.”

Step #5: Be sure to know which rewards are renewable.

“Ask questions about which awards are renewable and their requirements for renewal so that it is clear if your awards will only be for one year or possibly each year of your program,” said Standridge.