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financial aid tips — part 1

How in the world am I going to pay for this? Perhaps this is one of the most common phrases uttered by college bound students and their families. Even after you have gained acceptance to the school(s) of your choice, the financial obligation is a significant hurdle to overcome for many families.

"Financial aid package” is one of the terms that you will probably hear when working with admissions and financial aid offices. This term refers to the total financial aid assistance that you will receive, including: federal and state grants, loans, college work study, outside scholarships, and institutional aid.

Although some of the suggestions below touch on different types of financial assistance, the type of aid that this article will focus on is institutional aid. Generally speaking, federal and state grants are determined by family need, not necessarily by the school's financial aid office. However, institutional aid represents the grants and scholarships which the college or university itself offers prospective students. It's important for students to know that they can influence institutional aid. So how do you convince the financial aid office to offer you the most institutional aid possible?

You need to recognize that each college and university is different and not every suggestion will apply equally to every school. However, keep in mind that if a school has offered you acceptance, they want you to enroll! Take heart in knowing that many schools are eager to put together a strong financial aid package in order to encourage your enrollment.

Students and their families should realize that there is a correlation between the college's level of interest in a student enrolling and the amount of financial aid they are willing to offer that student. Colleges and universities may offer academic scholarships, leadership grants, achievement grants, art and music scholarships, special talent grants, minority student scholarships, athletic grants, need based grants, out-of-state grants, etc. because they want and need gifted students on their campus. The suggestions below are designed, at least in part, to help you present yourself in a manner that will demonstrate that you are a student who will contribute to the college community.

1. Apply Early For Financial Aid
Some students may think they can relax and let the college or university worry about their financial aid. Although a college or university may want you as a student, they also have hundreds or thousands of other students they would like to enroll. It's important to realize that some colleges or universities may have certain financial institutional aid programs that are limited. Don't miss out on a grant, scholarship or loan for which you are eligible because you did not apply for financial aid earlier.

You should do your taxes (both student and parent) as early as possible. Financial aid forms are based on your families income from the previous calendar year. For example: Joe Student graduates from high school in June of 2005, planning to enroll in college in September of 2005. Joe and his family should be applying for financial aid in January of 2005, midway through Joe's senior year. Therefore, it is the 2004 income figures that are used on the financial aid forms, not income from 2005. January of 2005 would be the earliest that Joe could apply for financial aid for the upcoming school year.

At times, there can be a change in family income after the first of the year due to a job loss or other financial difficulty. If this occurs, even after completing your financial aid forms, inform the financial aid office(s) and they may be able to direct you regarding how they can make some type of adjustment.

2. Ask In Advance About Scholarships And Grants
It's impossible to apply for a scholarship that you don't know exists. Ask the school for a comprehensive listing. The school may have such a list in a financial aid brochure or in the college catalog. In my experience, students seldom asked how they could apply for a particular scholarship. It's great to know that there is a leadership grant, but it doesn't help you a bit if you have no idea how to get it. Learn the criteria for each scholarship the school offers.

Do not assume that a college or university will automatically offer you a particular grant. You need to take the initiative regarding each individual scholarship/grant for which you believe you may be eligible. You will want to communicate your desire to receive the best financial aid package possible!

It's wise to ask questions early. If you meet the criteria for a certain scholarship, learning that in advance will help you when it comes time to put together your financial aid package. Your persistence and courteous questions may provide you with a scholarship or grant that you would not have otherwise received.

3. Market Yourself
You should take the time to provide a list that includes all honors, activities, community service, church functions, and volunteer positions you have held throughout high school. Remember to make it as easy as possible for the admissions and financial aid office to view all of these activities. It surprised me when I found awards and accomplishments mentioned in recommendations or on transcripts that were not even listed on the student's application.

Send a copy of this list to the financial aid as well as to the admission office. Include a letter with your honors and activity list saying that you would appreciate consideration for specific scholarships X, Y and Z based on the enclosed information. If you have followed the above suggestions, you should already know the criteria for these scholarships. Be specific about the scholarships and grants for which you would like to be considered. This will show that you have done your homework and encourage the financial aid office to seriously consider you for the appropriate scholarships. If you do not receive the scholarships, you will have a written document to refer to when you politely ask the financial aid office why you did not receive a particular grant/scholarship.

NOTE: It may not be too late to add to your list of honors and activities. Get involved! Even one year of activities can make a difference.

4. Contact The Financial Aid Office Directly
You should make every effort to speak with a financial aid officer. You can call them to confirm receipt of your honors and activity sheet or to ask any financial aid questions that may arise. Hopefully, the initial contact will be in person when you visit the campus. The objective is to relay your sincere interest in the college/university and your desire to receive the best possible financial aid package.

You will want to have your name in front of the financial aid office, demonstrating your strengths and the positive impact you can make on campus. Strive to have all your questions answered throughout the process. However, be careful to not go overboard. Make certain that your contact with the financial aid office is positive and honest.

5. Take the SAT/ACT AGAIN
Have you considered taking the SAT/ACT test again, even after you have been accepted? Depending on the school(s) from which you are planning to receive financial aid packages, this may be a wise idea. You may find that the college has academic scholarship scales based, at least in part, on your SAT or ACT score. You should review the criteria for receiving an academic scholarship to determine if you would qualify with a higher score. Of course, it's also important to learn if the school will consider your new score. You should determine whether you are reasonably close to the score needed for an academic scholarship, or to increase an academic scholarship you are already receiving.

Remember to confirm that the school will look at your best SAT or ACT score, not the most recent. If this is not the case, you may want to reconsider taking the test again. Some schools have generous academic scholarship scales. It may be well worth enduring a few more hours of pain if you have a realistic chance of gaining an academic scholarship that can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.

This article continues here:

Financial Aid – an overview, by Brian Madden

Institutional Financial Aid - Part 1

Institutional Financial Aid - Part 2

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