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Undoubtedly, the college admissions season is among the most stressful months of many students’ lives. Balancing the countless aspects of applications, including essays, transcripts, and recommendations can leave students with the unshakable feeling that they’re forgetting something – 24/7. Unfortunately, the mania doesn’t let up once all applications are completed and submitted. From January till March, many applicants are faced with a new challenge: navigating the complex and foreboding landscape of financial aid. Thankfully, we at CollegeVine have compiled this guide to make the process of applying for financial aid a little bit easier. Armed with our guide, you can finally dispel that “I’ve forgotten something” feeling and sail smoothly through your final semester of high school.



Otherwise known as the Free Application for Student Aid, the FAFSA is used by the federal government, universities, and some scholarship programs to determine students’ eligibility for federal and institutional aid. The FAFSA requires you to provide a comprehensive summary of your family’s assets, income, and expenses. An expected family contribution (EFC) is then calculated using your family’s tax information; this is the money that the government has determined your family can contribute every year to the cost of your education. Many colleges use your EFC to determine the aid packages to offer you. Depending on the financial information you provide on the FAFSA, you also may be deemed eligible for certain forms of federal aid, such as the Pell Grant, and a variety of federal, private, or institutional loans.


The deadline for submitting the FAFSA in 2016 is June 30th. However, this date can be misleading; while June 30th is the deadline to submit the FAFSA, many schools require you submit it earlier so that you can receive your aid packages earlier and make a more informed college decision. If you’re applying for financial aid, check your school’s website for the specific date they require the FAFSA to be submitted.


As evidenced by its name, the FAFSA is free to complete and submit. It’s important to note that the FAFSA must be filled out and resubmitted every year in order for a student to remain eligible for financial aid.


CSS Profile

The CSS Profile, aka the College Scholarship Service Profile, is used primarily by universities to determine the amount and the type of aid they offer to students. Though both applications ask for largely the same information, they serve two distinct purposes; the FAFSA determines eligibility for federal, or public aid and calculates an EFC, while the CSS Profile is used by universities to determine eligibility for institutional, or private aid and does not calculate an EFC. While they serve unique purposes, many schools require both forms to be fully filled out and submitted; that is, even if both forms ask for the same information, you must fill in this information on both forms. Not all schools require the CSS Profile. Check your school’s website for your institution-specific instructions and requirements.


The deadline to submit the CSS Profile varies from school to school, but many universities require it to be submitted as soon as early February. Again, this information can be found on each school’s financial aid instructions website. If you miss a deadline to submit the Profile, don’t panic. Schools will usually accept the documents on a rolling basis, although you should not count on leniency. Besides, it is advantageous to submit them as early as possible to ensure your financial aid package is determined in a timely manner. The CSS Profile website recommends submitting the Profile no later than 2 weeks before the earliest due date.


Unlike the FAFSA, the CSS Profile is not free. The College Board, which hosts the Profile, charges families $25 for initial completion of the application and the first school to which they choose to send it, and $16 for every additional school. A select number of low-income students to whom the fees pose a financial difficulty will automatically have their fees waived. Eligibility for a fee waiver is determined by the information submitted in the Profile, and no other process exists for being granted a fee waiver.



IDOC stands for Institutional Documentation Service (as you can see, acronyms are very popular in the world of financial aid applications). The IDOC is a service through which families can submit their federal tax returns and other financial documentation to the College Board, who then distribute the information to the students’ selected schools. The IDOC is used in conjunction with the CSS Profile, and colleges that require students to use the IDOC services will notify applicants after they’ve complete their CSS Profile. Not all schools use this service; check your school’s website for further information. Because the IDOC requires students to submit copies of their family’s tax returns, it is necessary for tax returns for the year in which the student is applying for aid to be submitted before the IDOC deadlines. If you are considered a dependent, check with your parents or guardians to ensure that they’re aware of this, as the deadline for submitting tax returns comes several months after most schools’ deadlines for IDOC.


Outside Scholarships

You can take steps to decrease the cost of your education by applying for outside scholarships. Many scholarships are offered to specific groups of students, such as history majors, student athletes, ethnic, racial, or cultural groups, or even people above or below a certain height. Such scholarships are made to benefit students that fit into these groups, so look around and apply to as many as you can!


However, one extremely important thing to note when applying for outside scholarships is that at many schools that grant need-based aid (that is, aid that’s given based on need as determined by the family’s financial information and not any academic or athletic merit), the more scholarships you earn, the less aid you’ll receive. The cost of attendance at many schools is broken down into two categories: parent contribution and student contribution. The student contribution is money students are expected to earn by working over the summer or through other means, and is usually around $2,500 (although this varies from school to school). At many universities, outside scholarships can only be used to cover the cost of the student contribution. Past that point, any additional scholarship money earned is subtracted from the amount of need-based aid given, and not the expected parent contribution. So if you’re applying to a school with a high cost of attendance and you’re already receiving a large amount of need-based aid, you shouldn’t necessarily rely on outside scholarships.


The process of applying for financial aid can be time-consuming, stress-inducing, and an all-around pain. With a variety of lengthy, labor-intensive forms to fill out and a wealth of detailed financial information to provide, plus a whole host of deadlines and requirements to be met, it can be difficult to balance everything. The most important steps you can take to make the process as painless as possible are to start early, research the deadlines for each of the school’s you’ve applied to, and communicate with parents, guardians, or any other adults involved in the process. Follow these tips, and it’s nothing but smooth sailing till graduation!


Anamaria Lopez

Anamaria Lopez

Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
Anamaria Lopez