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How to Pay for College: Your Financial Aid Checklist

A college education is valuable, but it’s also expensive. In fact, the average student would be asked to pay nearly $133,000 for four-year degree if no financial aid is applied to bring down that cost. That’s accounting for tuition, fees, room and board.

Luckily, there are many types of financial aid that can help you pay for college. These include:

  • Scholarships– Scholarships don’t have to be repaid. They are typically based on academic or athletic merit, as well as other student characteristics. An application is usually required, and there’s no limit to the amount of scholarships you can apply for.
  • Grants– Like scholarships, grants don’t have to be repaid. Many are offered by the federal government, but you can also apply for and receive grants from your state, corporations, and professional associations.
  • Subsidized loans– If scholarships and grants don’t offset costs enough, you can apply for loans. It’s important to note that loans, whether federal or private, must be repaid. Subsidized loans are for students with financial need. The government will cover your interest while you’re in school and for a small amount of time after you graduate.
  • Unsubsidized loans– With unsubsidized loans, you’re responsible for all interest payments.
  • Parent PLUS loan– There’s also a federal loan called the Parent PLUS loan, which your parent(s) can take out to help you pay for college. These loans carry a higher interest rate than most student loans.

Of course, financial aid isn’t going to just fall into your lap. Depending on the type of aid, you’ll need to complete applications, fill out forms, and meet deadlines. And with so many options, financial aid can get complicated.

To simplify the process, we’ve put together a financial aid checklist. The list below breaks down the steps you can take during high school to make your college education as affordable as possible.

Freshman and Sophomore Year

  • Take challenging classes and earn good grades. If you want to qualify for scholarships, you need a competitive Grade Point Average (GPA). Challenge yourself by taking honors or AP classes, and earn the highest grades possible. Take notes, stay organized, complete your work on time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or get tutoring if needed.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities. Choose a few activities that you enjoy, whether they’re related to sports, music, art, or an academic discipline. Volunteer for a few causes that are important to you too. Your extracurricular involvement can help you qualify for scholarships.
  • Learn about financial aid and college costs. Start getting informed about how much college will cost and what financial aid options are available to you. If you aren’t sure where to begin, your guidance counselor can help.
  • Start saving money for college. It’s never too early to start saving for college. Put aside money from your summer job, birthday and holidays, allowance, or other sources of income. Even saving enough to buy textbooks is extremely helpful.
  • Talk to your parents. Discuss college and financial aid with your parents. See what options your parents are interested in, and share ideas about what you can do to offset costs.
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Junior Year

  • Take the PSAT. When you take the PSAT during your junior year, you’ll automatically be entered in the National Merit Scholarship Program. Many schools and organizations choose scholarship recipients from the NMSP. The organization itself awards scholarships to some of the highest-scoring participants.
  • Take AP classes to earn college credit. Another way to save money on tuition is to earn college credit while you’re still in high school. Take AP (or, at some schools, IB) courses and pass the end-of-course exams. If you earn college credit, you’ll take fewer college courses, saving you time and money.
  • Look up tuition costs at the schools you’re interested in. Start putting together a list of colleges that you’d like to attend. Tuition costs vary according to private, public in-state, and public out-of-state, plus the individual school. Research tuition at the schools on your list to get an idea of what you can expect to pay.
  • Attend financial aid events. Most schools host workshops and other events to inform students about financial aid. Your guidance counselor may also come to speak to your class about financial aid opportunities. Take notes and ask questions.
  • Research scholarships. Tools like Scholly and Fastweb can help you find and apply to scholarships that you qualify for. Look for scholarships related to your intended major/career field, race, religious affiliation, interests, etc. There are even scholarships just for left-handed people—you may be surprised at the many options you find. Ask your guidance counselor about local scholarships, and see if your parents employers offer scholarships too.
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  • Keep saving your money. Continue putting aside money for your college education. If you don’t work during the school year, continue taking a summer job to boost your savings.
  • Make a plan. Begin planning your college financial strategy with your family. Remember that resources include savings, any college savings plans your parents may have, income, scholarships, grants, and loans.
  • Learn about the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps the federal government and schools determine if you qualify for loans, grants, work study programs, and some scholarships. You’ll fill the FAFSA out during your senior year, but it’s a good idea to gather information now. You’ll need an FSA ID, bank statements, and federal tax forms to complete the FAFSA.
3 Tips for Getting the Most Aid (i.e. Money) From the FAFSA

Senior Year

  • Complete the FAFSA as early as possible. The deadline for the FAFSA is October 1, but it’s a good idea to submit as soon as possible. Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Keep in mind that you will need to fill out the FAFSA every year during college.
  • Look up deadlines for scholarships/grants. Purchase a calendar to record deadlines for all the scholarships and/or grants that you’ll be applying for. Begin gathering information like a resume, transcripts, a personal statement or essay, etc. Keep a file on your computer so that you can quickly and easily access necessary info. Don’t miss any deadlines!
  • Update tuition costs for the schools on your list as needed. Tuition costs can change from year to year, and your list of colleges may have changed too. With your final list of schools in hand, research tuition costs and write them down. If most of the schools on your list may be a reach financially, try to add a few more affordable options as well.
  • Research types of student loans. Familiarize yourself with the difference between federal and private loans, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, etc. Pay attention to factors like interest rates and when you’ll be expected to begin repaying the loan. Loans can be confusing, so talk it over with your parents or guidance counselor if needed.
  • Apply for scholarships/grants. Apply for the scholarships and grants on your list, making sure that you meet deadlines and send all required information.
  • Compare financial aid awards and discuss options with your parents. Once acceptance letters start rolling in, you’ll receive financial aid award letters from the schools that have accepted you. Compare these offers and talk them over with your parents. Remember to factor in any scholarships or grants that you receive.
  • If needed, contact the college’s financial aid office. Be sure to contact the school’s financial aid office if you have questions about your award letter. In addition, inform the financial aid office if your circumstances change. Job loss, medical expenses, a death in the family, or divorce can make a difference in the amount of aid you receive.
  • Complete paperwork by the deadline. Check and double check the forms needed to receive any loans or other aid that you’ll be using. Be sure to submit by the deadline so you don’t miss out on any money.
  • Get your finances in order. At most schools, you’re required to pay the first semester of tuition before you enroll. Talk to your family about the grants, scholarships, and/or loans you’ve received, then make a plan for how you’ll pay for the first semester and the semesters to come.
  • Pay attention to ongoing requirements. Student loans, grants, and scholarships often have ongoing requirements to continue qualifying. These requirements are usually linked to your performance and the amount of credits you’re taking. Make sure you’re aware of these requirements to avoid the sudden loss of financial aid.

Final Thoughts: Your Financial Aid Checklist

If you’re stressed about the cost of college, remember that it may end up being much more affordable than you think.

Be proactive, do your research, and apply for as many scholarships/grants as possible. Attend financial aid events, talk to your guidance counselor, and discuss your options with your parents.

If your finances still aren’t adding up, get creative. Attend a more affordable community college for two years, keep saving up your money, and then enroll in a four-year university. For those who are determined to get a college education, there are ways to make it happen.

By following the checklist provided here, you’ll significantly cut down on the cost of your education, allowing you to focus on your future.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.