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If you did your homework as a junior, then you’re already way ahead! Use your research to compare options and find the best school at the best price. Just getting started? Don’t panic, but check out these financial aid tips.

As you narrow your list, here are some things to think about:

  • What is the average family debt burden at graduation?
  • What is the average unmet need at each college?
  • How long does it normally take to graduate? Will your grant aid be similar from year-to-year?
  • What are the application deadlines for both merit- and need-based aid?
  • Is there student financial aid for study-abroad opportunities?
  • Have both you and your parent(s) obtained a PIN number for FAFSA processing?
  • Have you researched loan interest rates, repayment obligations, and tuition tax breaks?

Now is not the time to slack. Your student aid package depends on it! Throughout the year, focus on the following:

Fall: Gather financial aid information

Contrast and compare
Learn what each school requires in terms of application materials and financial aid forms. Do your schools only require the FAFSA? Or do you have to complete the PROFILE, too? Find out! In addition, many institutions have early scholarship deadlines that require October or November submission.

Search for scholarships
Be attentive to deadlines and apply for as many as you can.

Retake the SAT or ACT
If you’re not happy with your score, or haven’t yet taken the test, this is the time to take care of it.

Check out financial aid information nights
Every bit of advice can help increase your chances of getting the aid you need. Grab a friend and go. You could learn something that makes the difference.

Winter: Apply for student aid

File the FAFSA: apply online!
This one form is your gateway to aid at schools across the country. Keep your eye on your schools’ deadlines and file as soon as possible after January 1. Submit your FAFSA before you file your income taxes — you can estimate the taxes and make corrections later.

Proof your SAR
Once you submit the FAFSA, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). If any of the information is incorrect, update it right away. Also look for your EFC, or Expected Family Contribution. This is the amount you’ll be expected to pay for college.

Organize your award letters
Along with admission offers (or soon after) come student financial aid awards. The bottom line is your bottom line, so compare apples to apples. The school with the lowest sticker price is not always the best bargain! Gift aid (grants and scholarships) is your friend.

Spring: Comparing financial aid awards

Assess your situation
If you didn’t get the aid you need to attend your first-choice school, you may want to make a visit to the school and appeal in person. While they probably won’t bargain with you, they may take a second look.

Make the big decision
May 1 is the deadline for final decisions at most schools. Notify your schools and figure out the next steps that you’ll need to take.

Summer: Make final financial aid for college preparations

Get ready
You made it! Prepare for your tuition bill by estimating the amount you’ll have to pay, comparing loan options, and talking to your school about tuition payment plans, if necessary.