Show me the (college) money!

By Tkrause
Some high school seniors are getting a wake-up call right about now. College acceptance letters have started to trickle in (awesome!), but students are also realizing that they may not be able to afford some of the schools on their wish list (not so awesome). Even with generous financial aid packages, there is often a gap that will need to be filled by families and/or by student loans. But, taking on mountains of debt to finance a dream college is never a good solution. You could, however, avoid this scenario if you become a little more proactive in your financial aid planning.

If you're a high school underclassman

Follow these simple steps to ensure you don’t wind up screaming “Show me the money!” at some unfortunate financial aid officer in your near future.

Prepare for the PSAT

Although your test scores on the SAT and ACT will definitely help you during the college admissions process, it’s your score on the PSAT that will actually unlock some of the largest scholarship offers available. Many colleges provide full-tuition awards for National Merit Semi-Finalists and Finalists. Some of these offers even include stipends for books, laptops, and free on-campus housing. If your school provides opportunities for you to take the PSAT early (freshman or sophomore year) — do it! You'll be able to pinpoint your weaknesses and study more effectively, which should help you score big when it counts during your junior year.

Forgo gifts

This one might be a little more difficult to follow, but it will help you out in the long run. Ask friends and relatives to make a deposit into a college savings account instead of buying you presents or giving you cash for your birthday and holidays. Just be sure the account is set up under your parents' names so it’s assessed at a lower rate when it comes time to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Apply for scholarships!

Don't wait until your senior year to start applying for scholarships; thousands of contests and programs are open to students 13 years of age and older. Make a point of scheduling time every week, beginning your freshman year, for searching and applying for any and all available scholarships. The earlier you start the process, the more opportunities you’ll have to win!

If you're a high school senior or in college

Good news! There are still some things you can do now to help increase the size of your financial aid package.

Complete all financial aid applications

The FAFSA may not be the only form you need to complete to get the full amount of financial aid available to you. Check with your college’s financial aid office to see if you need to submit the CSS / Financial Aid PROFILE® (non-federal financial aid form) or other internal forms in order to qualify for additional institutional grants and scholarships.  It’s also smart to look into your college’s alumni organizations, foundations, and specific departments (business, education, etc.) to see if other opportunities are available.

Appeal the award offer

If there are any recent changes in your family’s finances, such as a job loss or medical emergency, reach out to the financial aid office and ask about the appeals process. You will most likely need to complete a form and submit documentation to provide evidence of these changes, but any significant loss in income could result in more financial aid.

Continue applying for scholarships

The money train doesn’t stop once you graduate from high school. Look into scholarships specific to your college major or organizations that you're a member of (Greek chapters, honor societies, professional affiliations, etc.). You can also find scholarships for college students by using a free scholarship search tool. Check back every month because new scholarships are added all the time. If you still find that you are coming up short when it comes to covering your tuition bills, take a hard look at the reasons why you want to attend your chosen college. Can you get the same degree at an in-state college or another institution with lower fees? Will you graduate sooner from a different institution? If so, it may be time to change your plans and opt for a college that will not only give you a great education, but will also allow you to graduate with less debt.