College – U. Got It?

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With the new year upon us, now’s the time to start preparing for your 2011-2012 financial aid. If you know you’ll need to find financial aid, take the time to consider all of your options, and make finding free money (grants and scholarships) your top priority. You can get started today by doing as much research on grants and scholarships as possible and setting aside time to make your scholarship applications stand out from among the crowd! Here’s how…

Submit Your FAFSA Early

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) became available on January 1, 2011. Be sure to begin preparing for the FAFSA so that you can complete it as early as possible. Federal grants, like the Pell Grant, are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so you will want to be first in line for them. Also, many schools award merit- and need-based grants and scholarships on a first-come, first-served basis. Bottom line: Apply as early as possible!

Work on Scholarship Applications During the Spring Semester

The spring semester is a great time to work hard on your scholarship applications. You can find scholarships online using websites such as or the College Board’s Scholarship Search. Make a list of scholarships you want to apply for and their deadlines, and then begin working on the application materials. Think of scholarship application season as a follow-up to college application season. Spend just as much time and hard work on filling out and submitting as many applications for scholarships and grants as you did on your college applications – after all, you have to be able to afford the schools that you want to attend!

Look for Scholarships and Grants Everywhere

When looking for scholarships, in addition to online sources, be sure check some lesser-known places such as your parents’ employers, your local community, and groups or associations that you or your parents are part of. Many of these organizations award scholarships every year to members and their families.

Meet with Your Financial Aid Office

Once you’ve chosen a school to attend, set up a meeting with a representative from your choice school’s financial aid office. Ask him/her about financial aid options, discuss your particular financial situation, and follow all advice on how to find the money you need to pay for college. Many colleges offer a variety of financial aid options, including work-study programs and special need-based grants reserved for students with challenging financial circumstances.

Ask Family and Friends for Help

Discuss your college money needs with family and friends of the family to see what sort of help they may be able to provide. You may be able to work out a deal with them. You could also ask for money for college or other needs, such as books or things for your dorm room, in place of a graduation gift.

Consider Loans Last

If after completing the steps outlined above, you find that you still need additional money in the form of student loans, make sure to maximize your federal student loan options first. There are subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans you could qualify for, and there are also options for your parents in the PLUS loan. Once you’ve maximized your federal student loan options, if and only if you need additional money, consider private student loan options. If you need a private loan, make sure to shop around and compare the loan rates and terms to find the most affordable loan possible.

If you have any questions or need additional advice, feel free to reply in the comments section!

This guest post is contributed by Jeff Sheely, who blogs about financial aid and education financing at Overture Student Loan Marketplace, where students and parents can get information or compare private student loans to make more informed decisions about how to pay for college. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.