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12 Financial Aid Secrets You Need to Land Some Cash for College

fin aid secretPssst! I've got a secret. A financial aid one. And I want to share it with you. In fact, I've got 12 financial aid secrets that might take the stress off your mind and put some cash in your pocket. Read on for some great financial aid tips from the pros that really make cents.

1. Maximize your financial aid.
It is a common misconception that students only need to fill out the FAFSA in order to get aid. In fact, there are some extra forms you may need to fill out in order to complete the financial aid process. "Each college will likely have its own financial aid application that you will need to complete," says Ryan Himmel, CPA and founder of "Be sure to discuss the details of the application with the office of admissions and/or financial aid department." 

2. There's a difference between a grant and scholarship.

Grants and scholarships are both awards that don't need to be repaid, but they aren't the same. Scholarships may require an application process, which generally include an essay, your academic record, and perhaps a recommendation. There are also some requirements for scholarships that could mean the difference of being eligible for the scholarship award. Grants, on the other hand, may be awarded as part of your financial aid package and could be a federal award based on need.

3. College is a business. 

"You've got to approach it like a business because colleges are businesses --benevolent, altruistic ones, but businesses nonetheless," says Jeanmarie Keller, college admissions and financial aid expert. "Their job is not to make sure you get the most money possible, but to spread the money to as many students as possible. College financial aid planning needs to be part of the entire college process early on. Waiting until it's time to file for financial aid is too late."

4. Read and note the deadlines.

"Don't give the colleges a reason to deny you the money you're eligible to receive by missing the deadlines," says Keller. It sounds simple but it's something that happens all the time.  For   example, a college's application deadline might be 'January 1' but then on a description for a scholarship it might say 'To be considered for xyz scholarship you must apply to Cost-a-lotta U. by December 1.' Students and parents are so focused on the January 1 deadline they miss out on being considered for 'xyz scholarship' at the school."

5. Be the big fish in the small pond.

"One of the best ways to qualify for merit aid to be be one of the top applicants in an entering class," says Felicia Caldwell Gopaul, of the College Funding Resource. "Check out the prior freshman class to see how you stack up."

6. Just ask.

For college grad and professional, Lauren Gard, simply asking for additional money was the right move. "I wrote a long, heartfelt letter to the financial aid office explaining that I absolutely loved the school, was an active member of the community etc, but was in danger of being unable to return for my sophomore year because I simply couldn't afford it. Could they please consider giving me a bigger grant? It worked," says Gard. "Once you're attending the school--particularly smaller schools, where each student's continued attendance carries more weight--the last thing they want to do is lose you, so you've got leverage. Use it!"

There's a difference between requirements and preferences. 
"Students sometimes confuse these two terms," says Kimberly Stezala, the Scholarship Lady and author of Scholarships 101: The Real-World Guide to Getting Cash for College (Amacom, 2008). "For instance, scholarship donors can be very specific in who they are seeking as applicants and they might add on preferences such as, 'preference given to applicants from Wisconsin' but what if no one from Wisconsin applies? Then, they allocate the scholarship to the next best candidate, as long as they met all of the requirements."

8. Networking is helpful. 

Believe it or not, being persistent is often a helpful technique. Jennifer Ledwith is the owner of Scholar Ready and during her time in school found many ways to avoid the dreaded student loans. Ledwith suggests making a friend in the admissions office that can help you find programs you may have overlooked. "The recruiters want to see you at their universities. The recruiters know about programs that you won't find on the glossy brochures and websites."

9. There are special circumstance appeals.

Once you initially submit your financial information, anything is possible. If something were to happen, it's not impossible to let the admissions and financial aid offices know. Lee Harrell, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University, recommends, "Ask about a 'special circumstance appeal' if your family's financial situation has changed since your FAFSA filing. This is another important reason to file the FAFSA even if you don't think you will qualify for aid at the time of filing. If something does happen, having the form on file provides a bit of an 'insurance policy' that you can cite in your appeal."

10. Use a variety of resources.  

"Students should combine four tactics: print, online, word-of-mouth and self-promotion, says Stezala. "For example, word-of-mouth means telling everyone in your circle at school, home, work and neighborhood about your quest for scholarships. This is important because a lot of scholarships are run by volunteers and they don't necessarily have sophisticated marketing to promote their scholarships. And, self-promotion might seem like bragging but it you humbly ask for help most people are willing to help you."

11. Negotiation is possible.

From time to time, situations may change or you may really feel strapped for cash and unable to live with the package you've been awarded. At this point you should go to the financial aid office in person and talk to someone who might be able to help you. By explaining your situation and why you believe you really deserve more money, you may be able to get a little bit more and ease the stress a little bit.

12. See what the school has to offer.

"One of the biggest mistakes I see parents making (and ones the colleges are happy to let them do because it works better for them) is to focus most of their time and attention searching for private scholarships at the expense of the money that is offered by the schools themselves," explains Keller. "Parents and students spend a ton of time looking for and applying to private scholarships which are essentially a 'lottery' only to leave money on the table, so to speak, at the colleges themselves. The vast majority of money that's available to help families pay for college comes from the schools themselves."