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How to Apply for & Get Financial Aid for College

How to apply for financial aid

For many students applying to college, this biggest challenging isn’t getting accepted — it’s funding the next step. Thankfully, there are several sources of financial aid that help students nationwide pay for college. Wondering how to apply for financial aid to fund your collegiate career? In this guide, we have you covered.

In the sections below, we discuss the two types of financial aid — need-based aid and merit-based aid — and which types may work for you. We also provide step-by-step answers on how to get financial aid for college. Along the way, we also link to resources to help you learn more about the college and supercharge your application.


What To Know Before Applying for Financial Aid 

There are two main types of financial aid, and each type has a different set of financial aid application forms and deadlines. 

Need-based aid depends on financial need, the difference between total college costs and the family’s ability to pay. Ability to pay is measured by the expected family contribution (EFC), which is calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used to apply for need-based financial aid from the federal government, state governments and most colleges and universities.

About 200 mostly private colleges use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form from the College Board for awarding their own financial aid funds. These colleges must still use the FAFSA for federal and state aid, but use the PROFILE for allocating the college’s grants.

Merit-based aid, such as private scholarships, depends on academic, artistic or athletic talent. It can also depend on strange skills, such as creating a prom costume out of duct tape. Private scholarship providers each have their own application forms and requirements.

Want to learn more about merit-based scholarships and how to get financial aid via merit-based scholarships. Check out our article on merit-based scholarships for expert info and resources.


How much financial need do the colleges on your list give students?

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How to Apply for Financial Aid for College - a Step-by-Step Guide

To apply for financial aid, follow these steps:

1. Get an FSA ID

The FSA ID is an electronic signature that is used to sign the online FAFSA and access various U.S. Department of Education websites. Visit to obtain a FSA ID. The student and parent should each obtain their own FSA IDs.

2. File the FAFSA 

File the FAFSA even if you think you are ineligible for need-based aid. Visit to file the FAFSA as soon as possible on or after the October 1 start date to maximize the amount of aid for which you are eligible.

Students who file the FAFSA later may miss some state and college deadlines, especially in states that award grants on a first-come, first-serve basis. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA to transfer income and tax information from your federal income tax return to the FAFSA. This will simplify the FAFSA and reduce your chances of being selected for verification. Print a copy of the confirmation page, which will include your EFC. You should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) within a few weeks of filing the FAFSA online, if you provided your email address.

3. File the CSS PROFILE, if necessary

If your college requires the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, file it at

4. Complete Verification

If your FAFSA is selected for verification, complete the verification process as quickly as possible. Colleges are not allowed to disburse financial aid funds until verification is complete.

5. Review the Financial Aid Award Letter

The financial aid award letter lists the types and amounts of financial aid available to you. Be careful to distinguish grants from loans. Calculate the net price by subtracting just the gift aid from the full cost of attendance. Gift aid includes grants, scholarships and other money that does not need to be earned or repaid.

The total cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation and miscellaneous expenses. Compare the net price with the resources available to your family, such as savings, income, and loans, to evaluate whether you can afford the costs.

6. Appeal for More Aid

If your family has special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college, ask the college financial aid administrator for an appeal or professional judgment review. Special circumstances include anything that has changed since the tax year upon which the FAFSA is based, as well as anything that differentiates your family from the typical family. You don’t have to wait until you receive your financial aid award letter to appeal for more aid. You can also appeal in the middle of the academic year if your circumstances change.

7. Search for Scholarships

Search for scholarships on free websites. Answer the optional questions to match more scholarships. Beware of scholarship scams because if you have to pay money, it’s probably a scam! If you won many scholarships, review the college’s outside scholarship policy since some colleges will displace private scholarships by reducing the college’s grants.

Need extra assistance finding scholarships? Want tips and tricks on how to get them once you do find them? Check out our guide on “How to Find, Apply and Get Scholarships” to learn how to secure funding with guidance from our experts.



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8. Apply for financial aid every year

Especially if you were offered only loans last year. Financial aid formulas are complicated and subtle changes in a family’s circumstances can affect aid eligibility. Student assets mean more than parent assets, so eligibility for financial aid can increase when the student’s assets are depleted. There are also private scholarships that are available only to students who are already enrolled in college. 

Apply for Financial Aid with Appily!

With our introduction on how to apply for financial aid for college now complete, you should have a better idea on how to get started securing funds for the next step. Whether you are looking to pursue need-based aid, merit-based aid, or both, your ticket to extra money for college is just a few steps away. Want to learn more about college admissions and funding? Ready to start applying? Sign up and apply for scholarships here on Appily.

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