How To Apply for Financial Aid Without the Stress

Talk is cheap, but college isn't

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This post was written by Dawn Brown, CFP®, a regular BE Smart contributor and senior financial adviser at Altfest Personal Wealth Management. 

Many of us wonder how to get financial aid to cover college expenses. One way is by completing the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. For those attending college in the 2016–2017 school year, now is the time to do that.

[Related: Financial Aid Crucial to College Completion]

The FAFSA helps you to find out if you qualify to receive federal aid for college. While the form asks more than 100 questions, it is worth completing. In many instances, it is the only way schools evaluate student eligibility for aid.

The FAFSA can be completed online at www.Fasfsa.gov. It is used to estimate your expected family contribution which will help determine how much aid you will receive.

In addition, Pell grants are available to undergraduates who demonstrate financial need. According to the 2011–2012 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, about 2 million Pell-eligible students did not file the FAFSA—which is unfortunate. By filing the FAFSA, you alert colleges to your eligibility for a Pell grant.

In short, the FAFSA is used to determine whether or not you qualify for both federal student aid and a Pell grant. It answers the questions–

  1. Do you qualify for federal aid?
  2. Do you qualify for a Pell grant?

The maximum Pell grant is $5,815 per year, but here’s the good part—it does not need to be repaid! It is not a loan.

Of course, Pell grants are limited. They are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to those who demonstrate financial need. That is why you should fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible.

Put on a Pot of Coffee

Don’t be daunted by the long form! Fortify yourself with a mug of coffee or hot cocoa, and determine to get through it. It’s really not hard. Follow the steps outlined on the student aid website https://StudentAid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out. It details all the information you need to gather before you begin completing the form.

You can also check out the College Board website for tips and videos on how to complete the FAFSA. Visit https://BigFuture.CollegeBoard.org/pay-for-college/financial-aid-101/how-to-complete-the-fafsa.

In addition to whatever aid you receive, decide to pay for your college education with as much free money as possible, making good use of the many scholarships and grants that are available. Scholarships may be available from local organizations or churches. Also, visit the College Board website and Scholarships.com to do free college scholarship searches. You’ll be matched with countless scholarships and grants.

By pursuing a college degree you are putting yourself in a better long-term economic and health situation. You’ll acquire information and skills that you’ll use for the rest of your life.

Dawn Brown is originally from Birmingham, England. She received her B.A. with honors from Birmingham City University (formerly Birmingham Polytechnic). She is a graduate of Pace University’s Financial Planning Program, a CFP® licensee, and a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, or NAPFA. She has appeared in many media publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Money, Consumer Reports, and Black Enterprise.