One of the first things you must do before applying for financial aid is get organized. Applying for student aid may seem as easy as filling out a FAFSA or applying for a loan with a private lender, but organizing this process will help you save money on your education. After graduation, you will be very happy you were organized during this process because it will help you have less to repay in student loans than you would have if you didn’t cover all your bases.

Junior Year of High School

The first thing you have to do before applying for financial aid is to determine what college you will be attending. Create individual files for college applications and correspondence with those schools. Keep a calendar that helps you keep track of deadlines so you can ensure your applications are turned in on time. Here is an example of an organizer to help you stay on top of your applications.

Student behind pile of books and IOUsYou can also search for scholarships that will pay for part of your education. Entire semesters or years can be paid for in some cases. This can reduce the amount you require in loans, allowing you to pay them back faster after you graduate college.

Also, look at the differences between federal student loans and private loans. Private loans are credit based, so interest rates can vary. Review all the pros and cons of having private loans before diving in and applying for one. Compare these loans to federal student loans that have a fixed interest rate and come with a number of benefits. For instance, you can put a federal loan in forbearance before having to repay. There are some consequences to this (noted on credit report without impact on score unless in default before forbearance), but the option is there if you need it. Federal loans also come with the ability to enter into income-based repayment plans that can result in forgiveness of the remainder of the loan if you make a specific number of payments or you pay on time for a certain period of time, whichever comes first.

Senior Year of High School

If you haven’t chosen a school yet, it’s time. This is when you can turn to your files of schools and determine which you will accept. If you have already chosen, it’s time to start considering the actual financial aid application process.

Many schools have a financial aid night for incoming freshmen to understand the financial aid process better. Attend this event. There is a lot of valuable information that you can use during the financial aid process, such as how to fill out a FAFSA and what to expect. You will learn about how to obtain a PIN from the Department of Education, which is your electronic signature. You can go ahead and visit the Federal Student Aid homepage to see what your Expected Family Contribution will be. For low-income families, you may qualify for a Pell Grant. It is possible for you not to be 100% responsible for the cost of your education. Grants and loans can be mixed, reducing the amount of loan debt you have to face.

Just make sure you don’t submit your FAFSA before Jan. 1, because it will not be processed. Make sure you keep copies of everything. You will receive your SAR sometime between February and March. You need to review this very important document because an error could cause you to miss out on your financial aid. If your financial circumstances have changed, you can visit your chosen college’s financial aid office for assistance.

If your financial aid application is subject to verification, don’t get too upset. You will simply need to provide the requested extra documents. For instance, you may need to provide copies of your tax return, 1099 forms, or W2s. Approximately 30 percent of FAFSA applications are selected for verification, so it doesn’t mean that you have done something wrong. Just be mindful of deadlines so you don’t miss out on your funding opportunity. Organization is everything.

By April, you’ll receive your financial aid award letter. Make sure you pay close attention to the information that is provided about applying for student loans. If you have to apply for student loans, only apply for what you need to cover the cost of your education. If you borrow more, repayment could be difficult. You have to keep in mind that when you graduate college, you will most likely have other financial obligations. Make plans to start repaying your loans while you’re still in school so the financial burden isn’t as taxing after graduation.

After the Freshman Year of College

Be sure to keep every piece of paperwork that you receive so you have a solid paper trail. Also, keep in mind that you have to reapply for financial aid every year. Hang on to the organizational skills you developed when you first applied; it will be very useful every year you have to reapply. Continue to look for scholarships every year so you can reduce your student debt as much as possible. You may want to avoid student loans as much as possible, especially private student loans due to their higher interest rates and lack of protections. You can find out more about private student loans at my site, The Student Loan Report; additionally, we publish plenty of big stories on the student loan industry every day. Check it out!

Drew Cloud started The Student Loan Report when we found it difficult to find student loan news and information in one place. In his free time, you can find Drew playing basketball, reading other blogs, or playing with his Great Dane named Rudy.

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