How to start your college planning
Seniors are busy applying to colleges and getting ready to file their financial aid forms. But even if you're not a senior, you should start or continue planning for college. Below are ideas for things you can do. For more suggestions, visit ACT's College Planning Checklist.
- Take challenging courses in English, social studies, math and science.
- Think about careers and investigate possibilities with ACT's DISCOVER® or the Interest Inventory portion of EXPLORE®, PLAN® and the ACT®.
- Participate in extracurricular activities.
- Visit with your counselor and talk about your education and career goals.
- Think about reasons for attending college.
- Find out about the differences in the types of institutions you can attend after high school.
- Become familiar with college entrance requirements.
- Research college costs.
- Find out what kind of education/training is needed for different careers.
- Start collecting college information.
- Visit colleges and start comparing them.
- Register for the ACT and visit actstudent.org to find out all about the test, how to prepare, what you need on test day, etc.
- Talk with your counselor and parents about colleges that interest you.
- Visit colleges and compare them.
- Investigate scholarship opportunities.
- Get a part-time job or internship in a profession that interests you.
Don't believe college financial aid myths
College application season is in full swing. As you apply to college and see how much it costs, don't let fears overshadow an otherwise exciting time in your life. The key is to not believe the financial myths surrounding the price of a higher education.
Myth #1: Everyone pays the "sticker price" for college.
Many students add the tuition price, textbook fees and the cost of living and say there is no way they can afford college. The truth is most college students require some form of financial aid. Don't ignore college because of its "sticker price." You may receive a combination of grants, scholarships or work-study jobs to help reduce the cost.
Myth #2: You have to be very poor, very smart or very talented to qualify for financial aid.
Financial aid comes in many forms—grants and scholarships, which you don't have to repay, and loans, which you do have to repay. There is need-based aid for students of lower income-families, and merit-based aid for students who excel in athletics, music, community service and many other areas. Financial aid sources are as varied, too—the federal government, the college or university itself, a parent's employer, and others. Explore all the possibilities; you'll be surprised.
Myth #3: You can get more scholarships by paying someone to search for you.
Scholarship scams are everywhere. Beware of any group or individual that guarantees a scholarship if you pay a fee. There are many good and FREE scholarship sources on the Internet. Check out fastweb.com or finaid.org for more information.
Myth #4: If you pay for college, your parents' salaries don't matter.
Most need-based financial aid is based on the student's and parents' income and assets. Most schools require students to fill out the FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—in order to qualify for need-based aid. The form, available online at www.fafsa.ed.gov, asks for information similar to what's needed for income taxes. After submitting the FAFSA, you receive a report that shows how much the government expects your family to pay toward your education.
Myth #5: You can wait until you get accepted to a college before worrying about financial aid.
Most financial aid is given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Don't wait to get started. Looking for financial aid probably isn't your idea of a good time, but it's better than graduating from college with a huge debt.
Gear up for financial aid
January is fast approaching and that means it's time for seniors to seriously consider college financial aid for the upcoming school year.
Federal financial aid is available for students attending four-year or two-year, public or private, career or trade schools. The aid is intended to cover school expenses such as tuition, room and board, books and other supplies, and transportation. Most students receive the aid because of financial need.
Students can receive financial aid in the form of grants, loans or work-study. Grants are financial awards that do not have to be repaid. Examples include Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants. Loans are money you borrow and must repay. The best loans are those that are subsidized by the federal or your state government. These generally carry lower interest rates. Work-study provides jobs, usually on campus, so students can help pay for education expenses.
To find out about federal financial aid programs and your rights and responsibilities under these programs, read "Funding Education Beyond High School: The Guide to Federal Student Aid" from the U.S. Department of Education at studentaid.ed.gov/guide. You also can request a free paper copy by contacting the U.S. Department of Education at 1-800-4-FED-AID. The guide is available in English or Spanish.
Also, be sure to check out the ACT website at actstudent.org/finaid. You'll find a good financial aid overview in easy-to-understand language, plus a list of resources to contact for more information on loans, scholarships and government programs.
How to apply for financial aid
If you're planning to attend college next fall, January is the time to file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Information from the FAFSA is used to determine your eligibility for the federal student aid programs mentioned above—grants, loans and work-study.
You can get the FAFSA:
- online at www.fafsa.ed.gov
- from your school counselor
- from a college financial aid office
- from a local public library
- from the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243)
Make sure you check financial aid deadlines! The FAFSA will list deadlines for federal and state aid. Also check the requirements at the colleges you're interested in applying to. Some require additional financial aid forms.
Financial aid terms
Following are some key financial aid terms:
Aid package ― A combination of aid (possibly including a scholarship, grant, loan, or work) determined by a college financial aid office.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC) ― an amount you and your family are expected to contribute toward your education. It is used in determining eligibility for federal student aid.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) ― the application required for students to be considered for federal student financial aid. Obtain a FAFSA form or electronic filing information from a high school or college for the appropriate year (usually available in November). The FAFSA is processed free of charge and used by most state agencies and colleges.
Grants ― awards, usually based on financial need, which do not require repayment. Grants are available through the federal government, state agencies and educational institutions.
Scholarships ― Awards to students based on merit or merit plus need that do not have to be repaid.
Student Aid Report (SAR) ― the information you will receive approximately two to four weeks after your FAFSA has been processed. It will report the information from your application, and if there are no questions or problems with your application, it will report your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).