How to maximize your financial aid

If I had a high school senior who was planning to enter college in the Fall of 2021, here’s what I’d tell them to do right now to maximize their financial aid.

1. Fill out the FAFSA. Starting October 1, families can begin to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the “FAFSA”) which allows them to maximize aid opportunities at colleges across the country. It also allows families to take advantage of low interest federal loans. Some people think that they should only fill out the FAFSA if they have high need. Don’t fall for that. The FAFSA opens doors to aid—even non-need based aid—that otherwise will be closed to you. Many scholarship opportunities require FAFSA submission regardless of need. Most likely, you’re leaving money on the table if you don’t complete it.

2. Build a strong connection with your high school guidance counselor. Your high school guidance counselor can be a great resource, especially as you search for local and regional scholarships. Ask your guidance counselor, “Can you provide me with a list of local and regional scholarship opportunities that you think I might be eligible for?” Go down every one of those rabbit holes.

3. Prioritize local and regional scholarship searches. If all you ever apply for are national scholarships (i.e., the Pepsi scholarship), the chances are very low that you’ll be successful in getting the money you desire. Focus your efforts as close to home as possible. Many nonprofits, local business, and clubs set aside money every year for scholarship purposes. It doesn’t hurt to contact these organizations directly—particularly if you have some connection to them—to see if any scholarship money is available.

4. Sign up for scholarship search websites selectively. Many good scholarship search websites exist, but many unhelpful ones exist as well. I’ve found that the most helpful websites are the ones where you can sign up and build a detailed profile so the site can match you with good local and regional scholarships. Maybe you’re a left handed tennis player. Make sure your bio includes that information so the website can match you with scholarships for left handed tennis players. I’m only half joking. Pro tip: create a Gmail address just for scholarship search purposes, and then go to town!

5. Build a relationship with your admissions counselor. If the school your are looking at has admissions reps or counselors, make sure to get to know yours. And make sure they know you. At many schools, your counselor will be your biggest advocate in getting the best possible financial aid package. I have seen many of my counselors aggressively advocate for students they know well, and as a result, help net them additional funds. Be honest with your admissions counselor about your financial situation and let them do the dirty work for you! Your interests are aligned—they want you at their school almost as much as you want to be there.

6. Search the college’s website for additional scholarship opportunities. Most colleges will offer you a strong merit-based award right out of the gate when you’re accepted to hold your interest and keep you on the line. That’s a good start, but it’s not where you want to end up. The next step for you is to do a deep dive into the college’s financial aid website to see what other scholarship and grant opportunities there are at the school! Search terms like “donor funded scholarships” or “service scholarships” or “diversity scholarships” to see what else might be available. If you see something you think you might qualify for, ask! Some school scholarships —particularly scholarships funded through donors—apply to a very small subset of students (eg, students from a certain geographic area), so look for scholarships that fit your specific profile.

7. Ask for a second review of your financial aid package in the spring of your senior year. Colleges tend to hold back a pot of financial aid until March and April, in part to leverage students as they are making their final decisions. If you are serious about attending a certain school, it doesn’t hurt to ask whether they could review your financial aid package one last time in this time frame so you can be sure you’re getting the best award possible. It’s possible that the school will tack on a few extra thousand dollars to your aid package–not a bad payoff for just asking the right question.

8. Ask professors in your academic area of study if aid is available. Some departments within a college offer students additional aid over and above the university’s aid package. For example, if you are planning to study engineering, it is possible that the engineering department has funds set aside to help engineering students specifically. Sometimes this money is only available to upperclassmen students, but it is worth asking the question, particularly as you are putting together a four year financial plan.

9. Consider working on campus. Working a few hours a week as a college student can be a great way to help bridge the financial gap that might exist. Be proactive in asking whether there are opportunities for freshmen to work on campus. Ask about the types of jobs available and how much they pay. A good part time job can be the equivalent of another good scholarship (very conservatively $3,000-$4,000 per year).

These are just a start, but I hope they’re helpful as you begin to navigate the financial aid process with your student!

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