By Toni MartelloThe forms, applications, and documents that are required by financial aid offices can seem endless, and the process at times impossible. And unfortunately, it is something you get to deal with every year during school. When your frustration level rises, though, try to remember that the point of it all is to provide you with an opportunity that you could not otherwise afford. To start you off, here are some tips to make applying for and dealing with financial aid as painless as possible: What Can I Do Early? File taxes early! The sooner you get them done, the sooner you can complete your applications for the year. File your applications early! Although in most cases it does not hurt to submit your applications nearer to the deadline, many schools have penalties (which can add up to hundreds of dollars) for late or incomplete applications. It’s pretty common to have documents disappear or to discover a missing signature on a form, and sometimes it can take the school or processing company a while to catch these things. If you get everything in early, you will still have time to correct any mistakes they find or to re-supply information that may have gotten lost in the shuffle. Hang on to any and all important financial documents throughout the year and put them in one safe place. This will save you countless hours of searching through piles and drawers when the time comes to file the FAFSA. W-2s and your most recent pay stubs are a must, as are any papers linked to filing taxes. If you itemize your deductions, any receipts or tax write-offs will come in handy, and so will medical bills and financial records. You will probably be required to submit copies of many of these documents as well, so keep them easily accessible in a pre-determined place such as a file cabinet for when the time comes. What Can I Do On My Own? Look for outside scholarships to supplement what you can get from your school. Apply to as many as you can find – there is a lot of competition, but there are also lots of scholarships out there waiting for eligible applicants. A Google search is useful, but also look in unexpected places: local organizations, churches, community centers, even employers. Many scholarships are targeted toward specific demographics, so start with what you already know. Your school’s financial aid office is also a good source and may have a list or database for you to check. The resource section of your local library may be another good starting point. Be wary of online schemes, though. You should never have to pay for the opportunity to search for scholarships, and many companies offering assistance for hire are not worth their expensive fees. Fortunately, once you have applied and been given your package, your work is pretty much done. Of course, outside scholarships are optional. Some people go nuts applying for every scholarship under the sun. Others really cannot stomach the whole process. You may find that you are ambivalent: On the one hand, they are offering free money, and that’s great, right? On the other hand, you may feel resentful or pressured into doing this. Consider whether you have the time to complete the application, how extensive the application is, your chances of getting the scholarship, and how much it is worth to you before applying. Maybe you will find that the potential payoff is not worth the stress and additional work. Remember, though, that once the money’s in the bank, you may feel that the payoff is well worth the effort. If you do decide to go for scholarships, keep in mind that there are plenty out there. It may take some digging, but you will undoubtedly find a fair few for which you are eligible. Once you get to the graduate level, criteria become narrower and scholarships may be fewer and farther between. Fight for your money! In most cases, the first financial aid package you are granted represents a college’s final offer. However, it almost never hurts to ask for more. The financial aid offices definitely do not advertise this, but sometimes people can get their packages expanded simply by asking. The best time to ask is when you are a prospective student who is still deciding between schools. Mention the other school, and explain your situation. I have even heard of schools getting into bidding wars over a student. It helps if you are a particularly attractive candidate to the schools, but even if you are just an average student, many colleges have a one-time reevaluation policy. Just make sure that they do not have a policy whereby they can cut your initial offer upon further review–some schools do leave this option open. Be nice to the people who work in the financial aid office. They control the amount of money you receive, and they are also the most likely to be able to help when you are in a bind. The people who work in financial aid are used to dealing with students in their most panicked, agitated states, and know how to deal accordingly. If you encounter some attitude, take a step back and consider the circumstances. Is it the last day before financial aid applications are due? If so, take a deep breath and put a smile on your face. That said, these people are here to help you. If you find someone who you particularly like or whose personality fits nicely with yours, stick with them—they could prove to be a valuable resource in times of trouble. You should also feel comfortable approaching them with issues, even those separate from the aid process. They may have access to emergency funds or know of other resources; that’s what they’re there for. Financial aid employees may also know of outside funds for which you could apply, or of cheap ways to get what you need. What Do I Need My Parents For? Schools will ask for financial information from both of your parents. Even if you have not spoken to one of your parents in 15 years, schools are still going to want information on their income and assets. This can be a sore spot for some, but don’t stress too much. Schools are generally willing to work with you on this, even if the best you can do is to submit a formal letter saying you are no longer in contact with one or both parents. Even if both of your parents are unhelpful, there is still hope. Be upfront with the financial aid office and see what they are willing to accept. Chances are good that you are neither the first nor the last person to have this issue. Photo courtesy of Tracy O.