You’ve no doubt heard horror stories about how difficult the process of applying for financial aid can be. While it certainly won’t be the most fun you’ve ever had, the process can be much more manageable by breaking it down into finite steps.

EVERY college will require you to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Some colleges may require you to also complete the CSS Profile or a variation of their own financial aid form. This is why it’s important to do your homework early and be prepared.

Step one: Organize yourself

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Financial Aid Worksheet

Each school will have its own set of requirements and deadlines, but there is often some overlap among schools, so seeing all of the steps laid out in one place will help you know exactly the requirements you must meet.

  • Go to the admissions/financial aid page of each college to which you (or your child) are applying.
  • Find the filing deadline for the FAFSA. You can submit your FAFSA any time between January 1 of the year of enrollment and the deadline listed. But, financial aid is given out on a first-come-first-served basis, so it’s best to file it as early as possible.
  • Find out if the college requires you to file the CSS Profile (a supplemental financial aid application that is only required by some colleges.)
  • Does the college want you to send any additional materials such as copies of your tax returns and W-2’s? Take note.

Step two: Complete the paperwork and submit

Once you know what each college requires of you, you can now start filing forms. Filing deadlines are extremely important…be VERY mindful of them!

Both the CSS Profile and the FAFSA only get filed once, so it’s important to know the earliest deadlines for each form and file accordingly. You can always add additional schools to each form subsequent to the initial submission if you realize that you failed to list a college when you originally filed or if you did not have enough space to list each of the colleges that require this information.

Helpful hints for completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile

  1. Answer all of the questions (if the answer to a question is 0, put 0, do NOT leave anything blank unless specifically instructed to do so.)
  2. Answer the question as it is asked. This may sound obvious, but keep in mind that each of these forms is an attempt to put every American family on a level playing field. Family’s, however, have their own unique financial situations, and a one-size-fits-all financial aid form won’t necessarily give you a place to express that. Answer the questions as they are asked.
  3. You can express your family’s situation to the colleges’ financial aid offices individually, but do NOT try to explain your unique circumstance on the form itself.
  4. Filling out financial aid forms is easiest if you have your tax return completed for the last full calendar year before the student heads off to college (For students entering college in Fall 2015, 2014 taxes will be used for filing). Completing your tax return, while ideal, may not be possible, but,
  5. Whatever you do, don’t miss a deadline. If you cannot file your taxes before submitting your financial aid applications, estimate what you think your tax return will be. There will be a spot for you to indicate that the application is based on estimates, and you can update your information later with actual tax return information.
  6. The FAFSA allows you to list up to 8 colleges that can have access to your financial aid information. If the student is applying to more than 8 colleges, list the 8 with the earliest deadlines. Once the FAFSA has been processed (a few days), you may log back into your FAFSA account and make a “change”. The change is simply to replace the first set of schools with the remainder of the colleges on your list.

Believe it or not, this process is not quite as bad as it may seem. It’s roughly equal to completing your yearly tax return. So, just grab your favorite beverage, settle in, and get it done. It’ll be over before you know it.