To successfully navigate the financial aid timeline, start as early as you can – almost a full year before the academic term begins. Whether you’re a high school senior or a returning student, this timeline can help you track what you should be doing and when.
Short on time and scrambling already? You may have more options still open than you think. You still benefit from understanding the timeline. Start at the beginning and see, if you haven’t missed the deadlines yet, what you can hustle through before the buzzer.
September–November (the fall before academic term)
The first phase is all about getting ready. Plan on investing 3–5 hours in the fall to get the ball rolling.
Decide on a system. First, decide how to organize all the financial aid stuff. You’re going to have a bunch of paperwork to keep on hand and quite a few deadlines to remember.
Action: Get a physical folder (yes! the old-school kind!) to hold the papers you have to collect from your parents or yourself. Draw a blank calendar on the inside cover to mark important deadlines prominently. Even if you just use your phone to keep a note and calendar entries, decide on a system to keep track of everything.
Visit your school’s financial aid website or office to learn important dates. When does your school require the FAFSA to be submitted? If you’re an incoming student, do they require a CSS Profile? When is the final aid application date? What are the deadlines for specific grants and scholarships?
Action: Be the deadline maverick. Mark down every date you will need to know.
Gather the FAFSA info (and CSS Profile info, if needed). As returning students know (groan), the FAFSA is the first step and it will require a pile of information. If you’re a dependent, as most college students are, you’ll need a lot of info from your parents.
Action: Make a list of everything you will need and send it to your parents IN WRITING, all in one place. They’ll need time to gather it all up. Here’s the FAFSA website explaining exactly what you need. Don’t forget to make a FSA ID, or find your login information. Here’s the FSA ID link.
Begin the FAFSA (and CSS Profile, if needed). The FAFSA is available October 1 for the following school year. Yes, it’s a pain to be filling out financial aid stuff in the midst of your busy school year. But the sooner you do it, the sooner you can complete your aid application. Even if you’re an incoming student and haven’t committed to your school, you can submit the FAFSA as early as the fall before you expect to start.
Action: Start your FAFSA. It saves automatically, so you can return later to finish it when you’ve got all those last bits and pieces that you’re gathering up.
Research scholarships and grants. Scholarship deadlines range widely, but mostly land in the October–May window for the following academic year.
Action: Start researching and make note of deadlines and requirements so you can get going.
Make peace with essay-writing and apply to a first batch of scholarship and grants. While everyone else is trying to get a grip on the financial aid process, you can get a leg up on the opportunities with earlier deadlines. The biggest barrier we see among students: the dreaded essay. But here’s the great news: whatever effort you put into an essay, you will probably be able to repurpose your work for other applications as well.
Action: Pick one or two or 10 opportunities and get some applications in.
December–January (winter break before academic term)
We know you want a break. Do yourself a huge favor — keep chipping away on the financial aid stuff while school is off. Commit another 1–3 hours of time during this window.
Finish your FAFSA and your school’s aid application. When are your school’s FAFSA and aid application deadlines? The FAFSA application closes on June 30, but your school probably has a much earlier deadline.
Action: Hit “submit” on the whole thing. There’s more to be done!
More scholarship and grant applications. What’s on your deadline calendar through January?
Action: Send in another one or two (or 10!).
February–May (spring before academic term)
Last major push for the financial aid process. Now it’s time to wrap up what isn’t done, review your award offer, and finalize your aid for the next school year. Expect to put in another 3–5 hours over this period.
Review your award letter. Finally, you will have clarity on how your aid will shake out for next year.
Action: Decode the letter you got from your financial aid office. Here’s our helpful guide to understanding what it all means. [link to #103 – “decoding your award letter”]
Appeal the offer, if needed. Did your aid package fall short? Many students don’t realize they can appeal their offer.
Action: Reach out to your financial aid office to discuss any shortfall or ask any questions you have.
Complete all the paperwork to finalize your package. If you have loans, you’ll need to accept the offer and send back the necessary documents. Are the loans bigger than you need? You don’t have to accept the full amount. Contact your aid office if you need to change it.
Action: Sign, seal and deliver as needed.
Monitor all the important dates and requirements in your award. Most aid packages have requirements – you have to be fully enrolled by this date, you need a minimum course load, etc.
Action: Make note of all dates and requirements.
Apply to private loans, if you still have a shortfall. If you’ve exhausted all of your options to this point, it may be time to consider private loans. These are loans made from an organization like Funding U directly to students, a separate process from your school’s financial aid package. Funding U loans are typically open for application in the early summer for the following fall term.
Action: Explore your private loan options and submit applications. Find out if you could be eligible for a Funding U loan in less than 30 seconds.
One last round of scholarship and grant applications. If you have any spring deadlines, be sure to try for those last open opportunities.
Action: Wrap up those last few applications.
June–August (summer before academic term)
You’re in the home stretch! However, this is often a difficult window for students because unexpected complications change their financial situation. Maybe your living situation changes, or your family can’t contribute what they expected to. Don’t worry—there are still options. Do your future self a solid with these last to-do items:
Set aside $$$ from your summer job. Every little bit helps!
Action: See if a friend wants to have a saving contest or at least be saving buddies. It can help you both stay on track.
One last hail-Mary scholarship. See if you can repurpose any of those application essays and other materials.
Action: Check for late-deadline opportunities. There are some open as late as August—we promise!
In Summary: Work The Process
Financial aid may not be the journey of your dreams, but it is the process that enables your real dreams. Luckily, a little bit of organization really pays off. Stick to the timeline and you’ll soon find yourself one huge leap forward in your studies. Good luck!
Need some more help? Check out our Resource Guide on How To Pay For College.
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