So how much financial aid can you expect to collect?
It all depends on how much your family is able to pay, often called the expected family contribution (EFC). The depth of your family's pockets is measured by calculating income and assets as well as the total number of immediate family members and how many of them are in college.
To determine your EFC, the two forms are the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE form. Some schools require one or both, others even add in their own form to further uncover any assets that could be tapped. The biggest difference between the two major forms is that PROFILE can be submitted in the fall, requires a minimum student contribution, costs $5 plus $18 for each school or scholarship program selected and asks more specific and detailed questions sometimes required by certain schools. By comparison, FAFSA cannot be submitted before Jan. 1, contains the same questions for everyone, has no minimum student contribution and is free. Each uses a different methodology for determining need.
Is your head spinning already? To stay ahead of the curve and get the heftiest financial package you're entitled to, consider these important deadlines, links and scholarship opportunities.
Mark Your Financial Aid Calendar
PROFILE Online is available starting Oct. 1 for those students who are applying early decision and early action. Search the PROFILE website to see which schools require the PROFILE and to research their priority filing dates.
Check college websites to see if your student's desired colleges require financial aid applications earlier than the typical deadline to boost your chances for merit- or need-based scholarships.
Request a Department of Education PIN. The PIN serves as an electronic signature for FAFSA on the Web and significantly reduces processing time.
If your son is 18 at the time of completing the FAFSA form, he'll need to register with Selective Service in order to be eligible for federal and state aid. Register through the FAFSA form or at the U.S. Post Office.
Review any early decision and early action responses. If your student is admitted to an early decision school and has applied for financial aid, he or she should also receive a financial aid award. Some schools require a written acceptance. Make sure you understand the terms and conditions of the award before making a final decision.
Prepare tax returns as soon as possible since income and asset figures from the returns are needed to complete the FAFSA. You don't need to submit your tax return to the IRS before submitting the FAFSA.
The FAFSA application may be submitted starting Jan. 1. Applying early improves the chances of receiving aid from as many sources as possible. If you complete the application after January 5, you can print out a FAFSA worksheet, which provides answers to most of the FAFSA questions. Two to four weeks after you submit the FAFSA, you should receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). If you haven't received it, call 800-4-FED-AID or 800-433-3243 / TTY 800-730-8913. The EFC figure is printed on the front page at the upper right-hand corner. If there are any errors on the SAR, make corrections and mail it back immediately. If you provided your e-mail address on the FAFSA, you will be sent a link to an electronic version of your SAR. Make corrections to the SAR online at FAFSA on the Web.
Submit your PROFILE application to meet the priority deadlines in early to mid-February. Applications received by the priority deadline are given the highest consideration.
Read aid award letters carefully and be sure to meet deadlines for accepting awards. Most admission decisions and financial aid award letters arrive this month.
Compare financial aid award offers and consider meeting with financial aid staff members if your full need has not been met.
Make your final decision. Mail the enrollment form and deposit check to your top choice before May 1, the typical reply deadline.
Useful Links for College Financial Aid Seekers
FAFSA. Use this site to access a free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
PROFILE. You can download the application form for College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE.
FAFSA PIN. Be sure to apply for a Department of Education PIN to cut down on your FAFSA processing time.
Estimate Your Eligibility. Use this calculator to get a rough estimate of how much financial aid you may qualify for.
Compare Offers. This tool is useful to compare financial aid packages offered to your student.
Council for Opportunity in Education. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to furthering the expansion of college opportunities for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities.
Institute for College Access and Success. A nonprofit organization that works to make higher education more available and affordable for people of all backgrounds through supporting nonpartisan research, analysis, and advocacy.
FinAid. The Web site provides free comprehensive information about scholarships and financial aid.
U.S. Department of Education. A source of information, provided free by the government, on preparing for and funding education beyond high school.
Scholarship America. The organization's mission is to mobilize America through scholarships and educational support, making postsecondary education possible for all students.
College Scholarships.org. Students can search numerous scholarship opportunities on the Web site.
FastWeb. This Web site offers a free scholarship matching service.
Student Aid Alliance. An advocacy group pushing for increased funding for federal student aid.
Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation supports more than 1,400 college students annually with scholarships totaling $3.4 million.
The United Negro College Fund. This private organization provides operating funds for its 39 member colleges and administers scholarship and internship programs to benefit low- and moderate-income families.
IBRinfo. This nonprofit provides information about the Income-Based Repayment program, through which federal loan repayments are capped to a reasonable percentage of the borrower's income.