This may seem obvious, but it is indescribably important for you to know your financial aid deadlines like the back of your hand. Unlike high school deadlines, where you might be able to sweet talk your teacher into an extension, application deadlines are unforgiving: if you miss them, you miss them. That train will have left the station, carrying your money, and it will not be coming back until next year. You obviously do not want to miss the opportunity to get help with paying for college. Make sure you know exactly when colleges and the government need certain documents or information.
Without further ado, we present a financial aid timeline. And the crowd goes wild.
Summer: Research those scholarships, write your essays, and organize your paperwork. Also check out schools that are most likely to give you financial aid by searching out those with low net prices on College Navigator. Once school is back in session, you are going to have homework, exams, and college applications out the wazoo to fill out. Get a jump on it by being productive this summer.
October 1: The CSS PROFILE, a financial aid form required by many private colleges, becomes available; you may file it at any point until the deadline specified by a college.
October/November/December: Now your college apps are due along with early deadline scholarship applications. Get those suckers in on time.
January 1: The FAFSA becomes available. Fill it out ASAP. Some government aid is doled out on a first come, first serve basis, so file your FAFSA as soon as possible. If you have not filed your taxes yet, don't sweat it. Estimate those figures and be ready to back and change things later if needed.
January/February: You will receive your Student Aid Report and can correct any information on it and make sure the right colleges are receiving your FAFSA information.
March: The financial aid awards begin to roll in along with your college acceptances.
April: This is the month to really investigate the colleges that have offered you admission and financial aid. Try to visit their campuses. Compare financial aid offers. Make sure you understand what each college is offering you, how much you will be expected to pay, and what you need to do to maintain any awards. Also make sure that your awards are renewable. Colleges sometimes offer lucrative aid deals to freshmen, then leave them high and dry the following year.
April 15: Tax day… oh joy! File your taxes and have a party. The better you are about filing your taxes, the easier it will be to complete the FAFSA next year. (Colleges will also want you to send them a copy of your family's tax returns so they can verify the information in your FAFSA and other financial aid forms.)
May: Decision time. This is usually the month in which you decide where you will go to college. Make sure you understand your financial aid package and are comfortable with it. Lock in those student loans with low interest rates.
End of June: The official federal deadline to submit the FAFSA (which most colleges ask you to submit earlier). Basically, if you miss this deadline completely, the government will not be able to help you with your education costs in the coming year, at all.
August/September: Back to school! And time to get payment rolling for the first semester or quarter of school. Again, make sure that everything is in order with your financial aid.
• Know how much money for which you are personally responsible.
• Know how much your parents must pay.
• Understand where you will find the rest of the money.
September/October: Make time to meet with your financial aid officer. Familiarize yourself with where the financial aid office is located on campus. You may be working with the same financial aid officer throughout your college experience, so it is a good idea to get to know that person. And maybe bring cookies or flowers or heart-shaped chocolates. A singing telegram? Follow him/her on Twitter?
Looking Forward: Research awards designed for upperclass students, those offered in your department and research grants, teaching assistantships, resident advisor positions, and any other on-campus gig that can help you pay for school. Also, get ready to go through all of this financial aid mess again. You have to reapply for financial aid every year to keep the Benjamins coming in.