3 Steps to Getting Financial Aid

To be considered for financial aid — money given or loaned to you to help you pay for college — you have to apply. Applying for financial aid is like applying for admission to college, but they’re not the same thing. The financial aid application process usually has its own forms, deadlines and requirements — and you don’t have to wait to be admitted to a college before you apply for financial aid.

Financial aid comes in the form of grants, scholarships, loans and work-study jobs. There are three basic sources of aid:

  • Federal and state governments
  • Colleges
  • Private organizations

To give yourself the best chance for all available aid, start by completing the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Submitting this application gives you access to the largest pool of financial aid dollars and loans with the best terms. The FAFSA opens on Oct. 1 each year and you should complete your FAFSA as early as possible.

The second-largest pool of money comes from colleges, which may require you to fill out the FAFSA, the CSS Profile® or their own forms.

Finally, aid from private organizations is definitely worth researching and applying for, but it’s unlikely to be your main source of college money. Be strategic in completing these applications — you are more likely to get a local scholarship than a national one. And never pay for a scholarship search service — there are plenty of free tools out there.

FAFSA Application


  1. Submit the FAFSA.

    Completing the FAFSA allows you to be considered for the greatest amount of financial aid from federal, state and college sources — and it’s free to fill out.

    The FAFSA is the key to being considered for the most types of aid, including:

    • Grants
    • Scholarships
    • Work-study jobs
    • Loans

    The FAFSA is available online Oct. 1. Check college and state grant deadlines and submit the form by the earliest date to receive the most aid possible. You can request your FAFSA be sent to several colleges. And remember to reapply every year.

  2. Find out if other financial aid forms are required.

    Many colleges also award aid from their own funds—money from donations and gifts from alumni. Not all colleges require extra forms, so be sure to find out if yours does.

    Aid from colleges can include:

    • Grants
    • Scholarships
    • Loans

    Where you can find applications:

    CSS Profile®: Available online Oct. 1.

    Your college’s own forms: Ask the financial aid office or check the college’s website. Each college sets its own deadline. Be sure to meet the priority deadline to be eligible for the most aid possible.

  3. Search and apply for private scholarships.

    While many private scholarships may only award a few hundred dollars, this money can help you pay for books or living expenses.

    Aid typically consists of:

    • Grants
    • Scholarships
    • Internships

    Each scholarship program sets its own deadline- check with specific organizations. Remember to read applications carefully and follow the instructions. Contact specific organizations directly, or use a search tool, such as Scholarship Search.