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A Student’s Guide to Financial Aid and Paying for College

One of the scariest things for me as I approached high school graduation was realizing that in order to get a college education, I was going to have to find a way to pay for it. Paying for college is a huge deal and there are several different sources of financial aid you’ll want to consider. Some may include grants, scholarships, work-study programs, and loans. Federal aid can cover expenses such as tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation. It’s important before you start to understand the clear distinction between financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back (grants or scholarships), financial aid that requires a work component (work-study), and financial aid that will require repayment plus interest (loans).

While it’s, of course, preferable to get the financial aid that doesn’t require repayment, the reality for most students is that obtaining a college degree will probably involve some form of student loans. Keep in mind, it’s a good idea to investigate federal or government loans first, in order to take advantage of fixed interest rates and income-driven repayment plans.

  1. Applying for Financial Aid

The most important thing to do when applying for financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA for short.

  • Before you can do that though, you need to make a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) for you and your parent at 
  • Use this to log in to your FAFSA account at and begin filling out the application
  • Remember, this form is ALWAYS free so stay away from sites that charge you
  • When you sit down to complete the form, have your tax information ready for both yourself (if applicable) and a parent. If you don’t have these handy, you can use the IRS data retrieval tool.
  • Complete the form as early as possible every year (it open October 1st) you plan to attend college
  • Make sure to put all of the colleges you’re interested in on your FAFSA
  • Once you get to the financial part of the application just select the “Link to IRS” button and follow the instructions to transfer your tax information
  1. The Student Aid Report

After you complete the FAFSA, you will receive an email telling you the form has been processed.

  • When you log in to your FAFSA account, you should see that your application status reads “Processed Successfully”
  • Below this, select “View or print my student aid report (SAR)”. This document is very important as many scholarships require you to submit it to apply, so print one and keep it in your records
  • Important things to take note of in this report are the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and your predicted Federal Pell Grant amount, based upon your EFC. Your EFC is an approximate amount, based on income, that your family can contribute towards your college education. The expected Federal Pell Grant amount and your EFC are listed on the first page of the Student Aid Report.
  • Print and keep a copy of your Student Aid report.
  1. Award Letters

Once you apply for colleges and fill out the FAFSA, you will receive award letters from each college detailing the scholarships and loans they are awarding you and the expenses you will have. Use your calculated cost of attendance to compare colleges and see which one is best for you.

  1. Scholarships

Don’t forget to look and apply for scholarships. They are a great way to help offset the cost of college – even the small ones can add up! There are numerous scholarships out there, so use the tips below to take advantage of them.

  • Use sites like FastWebCappex, and Scholarship Owl to find scholarships or ask your guidance counselor about local scholarships
  • Make a list of the due dates for any scholarship you’re interested in to keep yourself organized.
  • Apply for as many scholarships as you can, as early as you can
  • When asking for a recommendation letter, always ask early to give that person plenty of time to prepare and help. It will come off far more respectful and well-planned than waiting until the last minute.
  • Have someone you trust read over your essays before you apply. Make sure to give them plenty of time before the deadline!

Paying for college can sometimes seem like a daunting task that you just don’t know how to approach. But you’re not alone. If you’re ever feeling stuck and in need of help, don’t be afraid to call your specific institution’s financial aid office. They are there to help you!