College educations aren’t cheap; many students spend thousands of dollars paying for tuition, books, housing, transportation and student fees. Because students can rarely cover these expenses with out-of-pocket savings, federal financial aid can help meet those obligations. Federal financial aid incorporates student loans, grants (which don’t have to be paid back) and work-study allocations. It’s crucial to keep track of financial aid time lines to avoid missing deadlines. Apply for student loans far in advance to avoid missing out on available funds.
If you’re applying for federal financial aid, complete the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form gathers together financial information from you -- and your parents, if you’re determined to be a dependent student -- to calculate what student loans you may qualify for. The government issues new FAFSA forms each year, so you won’t be able to apply for student loans more than one year in advance of the academic year for which you plan to attend college.
Students can begin filing FAFSA forms beginning January 1, but you shouldn't apply until you’ve gathered key documents together to accurately and effectively complete the application. It’s possible to correct errors made on the FAFSA application, but this slows your processing and could result in the delay of your student loan disbursement. Financial documents that will help you complete the FAFSA include tax returns, bank statements, paycheck stubs and other paperwork that describes your savings, earnings and assets.
Don’t apply for student loans until you’ve identified the schools for which you plan to attend. It’s not necessary to commit to one particular school before applying for financial aid, but you should list schools that you’ve applied to or are considering applying to because the government incorporates your school’s cost of attendance when calculating awards. On the FAFSA, you’ll need to list your school name and code for the application to be processed effectively.
Start looking for scholarships and grant possibilities in October of the year before you plan to attend college, since this can reduce the amount of student loans you’ll need to take out. In December, contact colleges where you’re considering applying and ask for their specific financial aid forms. These will be filed separately from your FAFSA. Complete your FAFSA form in January, retaining copies for your records. In February, contact your colleges to ask about available state aid, since state grants can also reduce the amount of student loans you’ll need to take out. In March, watch in the mail or your email inbox for your Student Aid Report; this documents your eligibility for financial aid. By April, you’ll want to return all financial aid forms to the college of your choice; submit student loan applications by May.
Applying for private loans to cover school costs is typically quicker and easier than completing federal student aid forms; however, government aid is usually your first choice since interest rates can be much lower than bank loans. Your private loan application might be reviewed within two days; schools must certify your application within 10 business days. Funds may be dispersed to your school within seven to 12 business days after completing loan paperwork.