Filing financial aid forms can be one of the trickiest parts of the entire college application process. At least, that's what 33 percent of parents and students said on our annual College Hopes & Worries survey. A little bit of research and planning can help to untangle these forms, but don't get distracted by the complicated paperwork! Knowing when to file is also an important part of the process. To get you started, here's a look at what can impact the timing of your financial aid forms and when would be best for you to submit.
Determine What You're Submitting
The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is an oft-mentioned form, and with good reason: It's where most students get their aid. But you don't want to turn down the chance of even a dollar of free money for college, which is why you should consider all available forms.
For instance, some private colleges — and a few state schools! — also require applicants to complete the College Board's CSS Profile, which is used in awarding students financial aid from institutional funds. In addition, some schools also have their own aid applications, which must be submitted separately from the FAFSA or CSS Profiles — that means you could be submitting up to three separate forms for financial aid. That's why I recommend wrapping your head around the forms first, and then thinking about the timing you'll use to submit them.
The Best Time to Submit
Just as what you'll be submitting can vary so greatly, so does when you should submit it. The timing of these forms is entirely dependent on your situation and the schools where you've decided to apply.
Some schools and states base their aid decisions on a first-come, first-served basis, in which case you should file your aid forms as soon as possible after October 1, when the FAFSA/CSS forms are first available. You don't want to miss out on receiving aid just because you waited longer to apply. If this isn't the case for you, take a look at the schools you're applying to and determine which has the earliest priority deadline and then use that as your overall final deadline for submitting aid forms.
Framing Your Finances Properly
Once you've determined what sort of deadline you're working with, turn to your finances. You'll want to know how to frame your assets between now and that deadline so you can apply for aid while showing the highest level of need. That can mean rearranging your cash assets, making large (and strategically timed!) purchases or even paying off plastic debt before you submit financial forms.
For those of you working with a later deadline, take this example: Say you're due to receive a New Year's Day bonus at work that will count for the previous year, but the financial aid deadline you've set is Jan. 31. Applying before that bonus hits your account will show greater need, and therefore you'd be better off submitting early.
More than any other part of the college application process, filing for financial aid is a numbers game, and as you get the timing right, it can yield great results for you. To study up, check out our books Paying for College, and for strategies on saving as much as you can in the process, check out 8 Steps to Paying Less for College.