By UnigoWhen I started the college planning process, I never thought about how I was going to pay for it all. Like some students, I assumed my stellar grades and extensive extracurricular activities would automatically have schools throwing money at me.Guess what? That never happened.I quickly found out that there are deadlines and applications involved, and that scoring college scholarships can be just as competitive as getting into a college. I certainly wish someone would have given me some advice about what to ask the financial aid office, because it would have made the whole process so much easier. I was clueless about financial aid, how to get it, and how to keep it.To ensure you don’t follow in my footsteps, be sure to ask the financial aid office at each of your prospective colleges the following questions. 1. What is the ‘true cost’ to attend?Don’t assume the sticker price on the college’s website is giving you the full picture of what it costs to attend the school. Find out about student fees, room and board, average book costs per semester, and any other items that will appear on your student bill. Once you receive a financial aid offer, knowing the ‘true cost’ will help you compare the bottom line at any of the schools you may be considering.2. Does your college have a full-need financial aid policy?Some U.S. schools are committed to meeting the full amount of demonstrated financial need for all admitted students. This may be met through grants, scholarships, work-study (self-help), and loans (federal or institutional). Some colleges, such as Princeton University, will meet all need without the use of student loans. If the college does not offer a full-need policy, you may need to find alternate funding sources, such as private student loans, to help cover all your expenses.3. Is there one application for financial aid?Many schools use one form to determine your eligibility for any and all financial aid available, but not all schools work this way. Some colleges may require individual applications for separate awards, such as department grants or alumni scholarship programs. Ask the financial aid office to ensure you aren’t missing any opportunities.4. What is the financial aid deadline?There are many deadlines for students to meet during the college admission process, so it’s easy to get confused or even miss a date if you’re not careful. Although the federal deadline for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is June 30 each year, every state and college has its own deadline for financial aid.Be sure to ask the college’s financial aid office for deadlines concerning the FAFSA and any scholarship applications you may be submitting.5. What types of scholarships are available?Depending upon the college, your grade point average, and other factors, you may be eligible for merit-based, need-based, or other types of scholarships. Some schools offer generous scholarships based on your academic and athletic abilities, as well as participation in certain organizations, clubs, and societies. Be sure to ask if the awards are competitive (limited to a few students) or given to any admitted student who meets the criteria.6. Are the scholarships renewable?If any of the available scholarships are renewable, it’s important to find out what you must do to keep the awards. Ask about required enrollment (full-time or part-time), expected grade point average, and any other stipulations that may result in the loss of the award.7. What is the average award package for returning students?Some colleges may try to lure a student by offering a very healthy financial aid package the first year, only to reduce the aid offer the following year. Knowing this up front will help you determine the long-term costs of attending the schools on your short list.8. How will outside scholarships affect my financial aid?In most cases, you are required to report any outside financial aid you receive. The school may apply this aid toward your loan or work-study balance, but this is not always the case. Some colleges may actually reduce the amount of institutional grants or scholarships provided based on the amount of outside aid received.9. When will financial aid offers be mailed to students?It’s good to know when to expect offer letters, so you can give yourself time to review and consider all possibilities. All too often, students will accept admission to one college, only to receive a better financial aid offer from another later. Save yourself the regret by waiting for all prospective offers before making a decision.10. Will you match another college’s financial aid offer?It never hurts to ask this question. If you find that you really love one college, but another is offering a better financial aid package, check to see if the financial aid department will match the offer. Depending upon the time of year, the college may have access to additional funding and may be able to offer you a more generous package.Nothing is worse than being accepted into your dream college, only to find out you can’t afford to attend because you missed an important financial aid deadline or neglected to apply for available aid. Be sure to take the time to meet with the financial aid staff at each college, inquire about scholarship opportunities, and calendar all important deadlines.The financial foundation you lay now will help pave the path for your future success.