How to apply for financial aid

by Marketing & Communications,

  • Someone filling out a financial aid form

Financial aid is the best way to lower the sticker price of a college, and a few small steps can make the process more manageable.

Patty Hoban, Willamette’s director of financial aid, suggests the following timeline for students and parents. However, if it’s March and you’ve only just begun to consider financial aid, that’s still OK, she says — you can accomplish a lot in a short time. 

Now: Search and calculate. Scholarships have varying deadlines, so it’s best to search right away. As you check out schools, use each institution’s net price calculator to figure out what you can afford. The calculator will provide an estimate of the award you would have received if admitted for the previous year. 

October: Apply for financial aid. Start working on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as soon as possible. You can usually submit the FAFSA anytime between October and June, but financial aid deadlines at every school vary. For instance, Oregon students who apply late can miss out on funding like the Oregon Opportunity Grant, the state’s largest need-based grant program. 

  • If the FAFSA process mystifies you, attend an information session at your high school or contact a college financial aid office with questions. Check schools to see if they require any additional documentation. 

November: Apply to colleges. 

January: Designate duties. Who will open the mail that comes from colleges? Who’s email address will be used on financial forms like FAFSA and who will check it? Who will complete the forms and make updates or corrections? 

March/April: Keep an eye out for the award letter, which may be addressed to you or a parent in the form of a letter or email. Your financial aid award will list: 

  • Types of funding, amounts you’re eligible to receive 
  • Tuition, fees, room, board and book fees 
  • Descriptions of each type of funding in your award, such as grants, scholarships, loans and/or student employment
  • Do the math: Calculate how much financial aid has been offered versus how much the school costs, and make a plan for paying the difference. Be realistic about your financial situation — you don’t want to realize too late that you can’t pay the bill — but if you can’t afford it, don’t give up. If you do the math and it doesn’t add up, go back to the school and double-check no mistakes were made or ask if something else can be done. Most colleges have an appeal process.  

March-August: Submit requested documents ASAP. The financial aid office might ask for tax information or other materials. 

May: Choose a college, pay enrollment deposit. The deadline for private colleges and universities is May 1. 

June: Finalize all paperwork for loan applications, jobs on campus, etc. 

August-September: Receive your money. After all financial aid paperwork has been completed, the financial aid funds will be sent to your schools, where they will be used to offset tuition and fees each term. 

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