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Financial aid can help you pay for college, but you need to know what types of aid are out there and how to access them. Here’s how you can get started.

When you’re thinking about applying to a college, look into its financial aid options. Every college has a set of financial aid policies—for determining who qualifies, what types of aid are available, and more. Look for these policies on the college’s website and contact financial aid staff if you have more questions.

Three Facts About Financial Aid

  1. In 2017-18 more than $184 billion in aid was awarded to undergraduate students. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the place to start. The FAFSA will help you access federal grants, loans, and work-study. The FASFA may be all you need to also apply for grants and scholarships funded by colleges, but there may be more steps to applying for institutionally funded aid.
  2. The FAFSA is available every year on October 1, and it’s convenient—you can complete the form online at And remember, you can opt in to the College Board Opportunity Scholarships for a chance to earn a $1,000 scholarship for completing the FAFSA.
  3. Students should review financial aid application requirements on colleges’ financial aid websites to maximize all sources of available aid.


Here are some questions you can ask financial aid officers at schools you’re planning to apply to:

  • What’s the average total cost—including tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, travel, and other personal expenses—for the first year?
  • Will applying for financial aid impact my admission application? What’s the priority deadline to apply for financial aid, and when will I be notified about financial aid award decisions?
  • How is financial aid affected if I apply under an early decision or early action program?
  • Does the college offer need-based and merit-based financial aid?
  • Do I need to complete a separate application for merit scholarships if available? Does the college require me to fill out the CSS Profile?
  • If my family’s financial circumstances change after filing the FAFSA should I contact the financial aid office? Will my financial aid award be adjusted? Do I need to apply for financial aid every year?


What to Do When Your Financial Aid Award Isn’t Enough

If a financial aid award doesn’t cover all your college expenses or your family’s finances change after you’ve completed the FAFSA:

  1. Contact the Financial Aid Office
    • Review the college’s financial aid website to see how you can provide more information. Look for guidelines or instructions for submitting a special circumstances appeal.
    • Call or email the college’s financial aid office—financial aid officers can help you explore more options.
    • Questions you can ask:
      • Is there additional financial aid that hasn’t been awarded to me? If yes, how do I apply for it?
      • Could my financial aid award be adjusted because of my family’s financial circumstances? If yes, what information do I need to submit an appeal?
  1. Don’t Be Shy About Asking for Help
    • When you’re not sure about your next step, contact the college’s financial aid office. Financial aid officers are there to answer your questions.


Looking for more information on financial aid and paying for college? Visit BigFuture for free, comprehensive college planning resources.