Applying for financial aid can be stressful and confusing, but finding answers doesn’t have to be. The key is knowing who to ask and what to ask for.
Much of the time it’s your school’s financial aid office that can help, but not always. Before contacting them, make sure you know the do’s and don’ts of dealing with the financial aid department.
Expect the financial aid office to be able to answer questions about:
- Cost of attendance
- Financial aid availability
- Your eligibility for financial aid
- The financial aid application process
- Understanding a financial aid offer
- How aid is distributed
Call the financial office with a list of your unanswered questions, but be open to setting up a separate phone or in-person appointment for going over everything.
Don’t call a school’s financial aid department with questions before checking their website to see if your questions are answered there. This may save you the phone call entirely or shorten it considerably.
As you can imagine, financial aid offices are inundated with inquiries, so the more you can do to minimize that for them, the more they will appreciate it.
Call the financial aid office and ask what their deadline is for submission of financial aid forms, as it may be different from the federal deadline for FAFSA. Be sure to clarify whether the school’s deadline refers to the date you submit your FAFSA or the date it is processed.
Also, ask what the state deadline is for submission of financial aid forms, and if there are any forms besides FAFSA that you should be submitting specific to that school.
Don’t wait until the last minute. As soon as you know where you want to go, call the school’s financial aid office and ask about deadlines.
Filling out and submitting FAFSA
If you have questions, review the Department of Education’s free resource on filling out FAFSA.
If you don’t find the answers you need, call the financial aid office and tell them you have questions about filling out FAFSA. It may be something they can quickly answer on the spot or they may ask you to set up an appointment — by phone or in-person — to go over more in-depth issues.
It’s easy to submit the FAFSA yourself, but some financial aid offices let you submit FAFSA through them. If that’s something you’re interested in, see if that’s an option at your school.
Don’t expect the financial aid office to make an exception for you if you miss the submission deadline.
Checking the status of FAFSA
If you submitted your FAFSA online, you can start tracking its status immediately by logging into your account at FAFSA.gov.
If you submitted your FAFSA through the mail, you can start tracking its status after it has been processed, which is usually 7 to 10 days after you mailed it. The process for checking its status is the same — logging into your account at FAFSA.gov.
Don’t expect a school’s financial aid department to know what’s going on with your FAFSA before it has been processed. You’ll need to go through FAFSA.gov for that.
Reviewing your student aid report
Once your FAFSA is processed, review your Student Aid Report (SAR). This report will include a summary of the information you submitted on your FAFSA, as well as your Estimated Family Contribution. If your application was incomplete, you will be instructed to provide the necessary information.
If you submitted your FAFSA online, you should be able to review your SAR online as soon as your application is processed. If you submitted your FAFSA via regular mail and included an email address, expect an email with a link to where you can review your SAR. If you submitted your FAFSA via regular mail without an email address, expect to receive an SAR acknowledgment in the mail.
Make sure everything on your SAR is correct. To fix mistakes, login to your account at FAFSA.gov. If you find mistakes that you are unable to fix online — or if your family’s financial situation has changed since you submitted FAFSA — call the financial aid office and ask for their advice.
Don’t expect the financial aid office to be able to make any and all FAFSA corrections for you. Unfortunately, there are some mistakes that will require you to fill out and submit the FAFSA again.
Waiting on an award letter
Once you have received your student aid report (and made any necessary corrections), call the financial aid office to make sure they have everything they need.
Ask when you might expect to receive an award letter. If the date they gave you passes and you still have not received an award letter, call to follow up.
Don’t call the financial aid office every week to ask where your financial aid offer stands or to complain about how long it’s taking.
And don’t make your case for why you deserve financial aid to the financial aid office; the FAFSA you filled out is making that case for you.
Appealing an award letter
If the financial aid offer is not enough to make their school affordable for you, this is the time to make the case for why you need more aid.
Write a short but detailed letter to the school asking for a professional judgment review. Here’s how. Include supporting documentation, and call the school to verify the mailing address.
A week after you mail it, call the school to verify receipt of your letter. Ask when you might expect a response. If that date passes without hearing anything, call back to follow up.
Don’t call a school’s financial aid department to complain that the aid offer is not enough.
Don’t turn your letter into an emotional sob story, and don’t compare your financial aid offer to anyone else you know who got more.
Lastly, don’t expect to be able to appeal the result of your initial appeal. If the professional judgment review doesn’t result in more aid, you’re not getting it.
Dealing with the financial aid office gets easier
Unless you’re a college senior, everything you’re learning now about dealing with the financial aid office will come in handy next year when it’s time to submit your FAFSA again. As you get to know the processes and people in your school’s financial aid office, the easier all of this will become.
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