What You Need to Know About Applying for Financial Aid

By the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA)

Applying to college this year? Then you’ll likely also need to apply for financial aid, the money that can help your family pay for college costs. There’s a lot to know about the financial aid process, but if you stay organized and follow the right steps, you’ll have no problem keeping on track. Start preparing now, and ask questions when you need to. We provide information on where to go for assistance at the end of this list.

1. Learn your required applications

To apply for financial aid, you’ll definitely need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), as it’s required by every college. But you may also need to submit the CSS Profile™, which is a requirement of over 250 colleges and universities in the country.

On each application, you’ll indicate where you’re applying to college (and who should therefore receive your data). Reference the website of each college on your list to find out the forms required.

2. Find out your due dates

If we could put this bullet point in flashing neon, we would. Financial aid deadlines are so important, as missing them can mean missing out on thousands of dollars in financial aid. Each school may have a different deadline, and your state may also have its own FAFSA deadline, so keep your calendar updated and apply on time. Each school’s financial aid webpage should list its deadlines front and center.

And in many cases they’re different than the admissions deadline (tricky, right?) so make note of each one. Both the FAFSA and Profile become available on October 1st, so be prepared to complete your applications soon after that.

3. Gather your necessary information and documents

You’ll need some specific data and documents to help you apply for financial aid:

  • An FSA ID to access the FAFSA. It’s basically just a username and password, and you’ll need one for the student and one parent. You can get one anytime (even before October 1st) here.

  • Social Security number and date of birth for the student and parents

  • 2017 income information. The financial aid applications will reference your federal tax return from that year, so it’s useful to have that on hand. The FAFSA will allow you to pull your tax data directly from the IRS website.

  • Information on any untaxed income from 2017

  • Current value of any parent and student assets

  • List of colleges where you plan to apply

4. Understand Verification

The Department of Education requires that college and universities participate in Verification, which mandates that they verify the information submitted on a certain percentage of financial aid applications. Millions of students get selected for Verification. If you are, you’ll likely be required to submit additional information or documentation to your colleges and universities. If you’re selected for Verification but don’t complete your requirements, you won’t receive any financial aid. Your schools will contact you if you’re selected (you may be chosen by some and not others) and will let you know what’s required of you. Make sure you stay on top of your email inbox (both students and parents) and your mailbox in case you receive a notice of Verification.

5. Know where to go for help

Find out the places in your community where you can get free help with your financial aid applications. Start with your school counselor, who will be able to answer most of your questions or point you to someone who can. Many states have a College Goal Sunday program, which offers free events to help families with the FAFSA (in Massachusetts, it’s called FAFSA Day).

There are college access organizations throughout the country that help students with the financial aid process, and if you have a state financing authority (check this map to see if you do), that entity can likely also provide assistance.

Remember, if you do your research and stay organized, you’ll have no trouble applying for financial aid.

Good luck!

The Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA) is a not-for-profit public entity started in 1982 by the Massachusetts Legislature. MEFA’s mission since its founding has been to help students and families access and afford higher education and reach financial goals through education programs, tax-advantaged savings plans, low-cost loans, and expert guidance. All of MEFA’s work aligns with the ever-present goal to support the independence, growth, and success of students and families.