How to Apply for Financial Aid

How to Apply for Financial Aid
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Whether you're an undergraduate or graduate student, it's worth exploring the financial aid process and the various financial aid programs available to help cover your educational costs along with college cost essentials like room, board and materials. Your options range from grants and loans to scholarships and work-study programs, and criteria range from financial need and academic achievement to membership in a particular group. The application process will depend on the type of student financial aid and its source.

Basics of Financial Aid

The types of financial aid available help cover the cost of attendance that can include tuition, books, room and board, fees and other items that undergraduate and graduate students have to pay during the school year. Receiving most types of aid requires an application process where you fill out a form with personal, academic and financial details as well as include extras that support your application or address aid eligibility for a specific award. Common types of financial aid include:

  • Loans​: You can find federal and private student loans to cover educational costs. Federal Direct loans are available regardless of financial need and usually don't require a credit check, and Direct PLUS loans are available with a credit check to parents and graduate students with need. Private students loans through banks require a credit check and offer less flexible repayment plans.
  • Grants​: Grants are helpful since they don't need to be repaid in most cases. Popular federal grant programs include the need-based Pell and Federal Supplemental Educational Grant programs for undergraduates. You can also find grants through states and schools specifically.
  • Scholarships​: Scholarships award money you don't have to pay back and may be based on criteria such as grades, financial need, hobbies and skills, type of degree program or group affiliation. They may come through schools, charities and various private organizations.
  • Work programs​: This kind of financial aid involves working for the school or associated organization to receive money. The Federal Work-Study program is a popular choice for students with financial need. Other work programs include fellowships and assistantships geared toward graduate students.

Depending on the financial aid program, you might start the application for an aid package as soon as the year before you plan to attend college, i.e., while still in high school. For others, you might apply for aid at the same time you apply for the school or during the enrollment process, or you may apply once you're an active student. Deadlines will depend on the aid program and your school's policies, so you'll want to pay close attention to both to learn the requirements for making a financial aid application.

Read More​: Federal Student Grants

Applying for Federal Financial Aid

To find out if you're eligible for federal financial aid programs through the federal government, like student loans, work-study and grants, you'll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on the Federal Student Aid website ( part of the U.S. Department of Education. Beginning a FAFSA application requires making an account on this website to get a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. You'll then need to gather information about you, your school and possibly your parents' or spouse's finances.

Once you have an FSA ID, you'll log in and begin your FAFSA application by going through several forms that ask for information such as the following:

  • Your contact details
  • Your driver's license details and Social Security number
  • Your citizenship status - U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Your educational history and future degree plans
  • Your planned residency (such as off-campus, on-campus or with a parent)
  • Your tax information from your income tax return and personal asset details
  • Your household size and any government assistance programs you're part of
  • Your criminal history
  • The school code for each school you're interested in
  • Personal and financial data for a spouse or parents (if dependent)

After submitting the FAFSA, you should get a confirmation and the expected family contribution – determined by factors such as family income and assets – that your school will use in determining aid. If any edits are needed, you should get an email. You should get a financial aid award letter from your school with your federal aid amounts and types, and the government will automatically send the money to your school when the time comes. You can usually opt to get a refund check or direct deposit if you have excess aid beyond your school's bill.

Note that if you're completing the FAFSA for the 2021-2022 school year, the deadline is ​June 30, 2022​. However, check with your school since they may have their own deadline depending on when you start class.

Read More​: Federal Student Loans

Applying for Scholarships

When applying for scholarships, you'll find that deadlines, requirements and the application process will depend on the issuer. Some will be merit-based and reflect your academic history or achievements, while others will be based on financial need or affiliation with a particular group. Depending on the scholarship, the money might go to your school automatically, or you may have to send it to the financial aid office yourself.

If the scholarship comes from a school that's accepted you, then they may already have a lot of the information needed to make a decision. You might just need to write an essay, meet certain grade criteria, show documentation related to an affiliation or have an interview to get approved. You might also need to complete an institutional scholarship application to be considered for the school's scholarships. You may need to apply within a few months of enrollment to qualify.

For external scholarships, you can expect to fill out a thorough application with personal, educational, financial and possibly professional details. You'll need to include any extras required such as essays, proof of affiliation or achievement or samples of work. You might also have an interview.

Applying for State Grants

Along with getting federal grants, you can also apply for state aid through state grant programs through state governments, which often go off your financial need, student status (such as a transfer student) or the type of field you've chosen. Qualifying for such programs usually involves first completing the FAFSA application and then sending some additional information to the state agency responsible for the grants. For example, you might need to show proof of residency, program enrollment or grade point average.

Your state may have its own application similar to the FAFSA for this purpose. You'll want to complete this application for the academic year and note any deadline given for the grant programs. The money usually gets sent directly to your school if you get approved, and you should see the grant on your financial aid reward letter or online account.

Applying to Other School-Specific Assistance Programs

Depending on your level of study and specific school, you may have more school-specific aid programs such as institutional grants, fellowships and assistantships.

School-specific grants often require a FAFSA application and are designated for undergraduates who meet certain financial or academic criteria. They may require no extra work on your part besides meeting the criteria listed since the school will assess eligibility when they receive the FAFSA.

On the other hand, you usually need to actively seek fellowships and assistantships that are available for graduate programs. You'll want to check with your university's department about their deadlines, openings and application process. You can expect to show dedication through personal statements, letters of recommendation, a strong academic history and possibly some professional experience in the field. For fellowships, you may need a proposal and budget for the project too.

Applying for Private Student Loans

Often used when other forms of aid don't fully cover your college expenses or you can't qualify for federal financial aid programs or scholarships, private student loans require a thorough application process and credit screening like other types of bank loans do. You'll often go to the financial institution's website or visit in person to fill out an application that asks for your personal and financial information plus details about your higher education program.

The bank will review your private student loan application and do a credit check to determine your eligibility, interest rate and loan amount. In some cases, they might ask you to have a co-signer and provide their details to get approved. If you don't have good credit or a suitable co-signer, you may be ineligible for this kind of student loan.

When you get approved, the lender will usually send the funds directly to your school. But if they don't for some reason, you'll need to contact your school's financial aid office to have the money transferred and applied to your account.