“I look forward to filling out the FAFSA and CSS Profile!” said no one I have ever known except for my guest today, Tiffany Clay, MBA, CLU, our guru on all-things-paying-for-college. The college financial aid forms are written as if our kids are filling them out, but in most cases, who are we kidding? I’m so grateful to Tiffany for taking the time to share tips with us.
Tiffany’s Tips for Conquering Financial Aid Forms
After putting five children through college (with two still to go) and educating families all over the country about this process, I’m passionate about empowering you to conquer this monster! The financial aid process can be overwhelming, confusing, and downright terrifying. Add to that a pandemic, and it’s enough to make any family want to run for the hills. But I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way! Here are seven tips to help you get started, without (too many) tears:
- Be prepared. All schools require the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to apply for any type of aid, but many also now require the CSS Profile, administered by The College Board. In addition, some schools also ask you to complete a separate aid application. Use excel, a piece of poster board, whatever floats your boat, but gather every requirement, and the corresponding deadlines (that can be all over the place), to have handy in a grid when you sit down to begin.
- Get organized. You will need your tax returns from calendar year 2019 for the 2021-22 academic year to complete the forms, so be sure to have those documents on hand, as well.
- Don’t wait until the last minute. As soon as you get rolling on one or both of the forms, you will feel an immense sense of relief. And many schools give out money on a first come, first served basis, so even applying by the deadline might not mean there are funds left for your child at a given school. Forms became available on October 1, so now’s the time to motivate!
- Explain unique situations. In the CSS Profile, the final section allows for an explanation of unique family situations that could impact a financial aid package. A recent job loss, an illness, a loss of health insurance, and more, can impact a family’s financial situation in a way that your 2019 taxes will not explain. Explain as much as you can about the actual finances of your household, so colleges can fully understand your ability to pay and the impact it will have on your family. If a school uses only the FAFSA, write a well-crafted email with this explanation, and send it to the college’s financial aid department.
- Ask for help. Don’t think you have to go it alone. Many high schools have college counselors, there are free workshops available (virtual these days), there are friends who have been through the process, the individual aid offices at the colleges can often help, and there are private consultants, like me. Don’t suffer; ask until your question is fully answered!
- Don’t panic. When you complete the FAFSA, it will generate a number that shows up on your confirmation, and you might think that’s the amount the college expects you to pay. That number is almost never the number, so hang tight until your actual financial aid offer arrives along with your child’s acceptance. Then if the real number is much bigger than you expected, or you feel your family cannot handle the expense, there are numerous ways to appeal or negotiate with a college. While you wait, for a better idea of what the number might be for your family, use the Net Price Calculator on the school’s website, and/or try the FAFSA4caster on the government’s website.
- Talk to your student. Although this process is typically driven by parents/guardians, make sure your student is aware of the process, understands the effort you’re making, and knows what may, or may not, be feasible for your family when it comes to college costs.
If you want to go the private consultant route, you can reach Tiffany Clay herself here. She will talk you down from the ledge of anxiety cliff, and she’ll give you a discount if you mention you’re a CPR member.
For last minute essay help or application reviews for seniors applying now, contact me here. Make it clear you’re part of our tribe, and I’ll try my darndest to accommodate your child during this countdown toward deadlines.
For more tips about everything—from starting a college list to submitting an application— than I could possibly include in a newsletter, turn to my tell-all book, College Admissions Cracked.
Here’s the link for the fafsa.ed.gov website Tiffany mentioned, if you want to try their FAFSA4caster to get a better of idea of true sticker price for your child to attend college.
My friend Chris suggests that a Dark & Stormy is the perfect cocktail to set the mood for filling out the CSS Profile & FAFSA:
2 oz dark rum
3 oz ginger beer
½ oz lime juice & lime garnish (optional)
For non-drinkers, I suggest festive food with many carbs, like anything you’d bring to a superbowl party.
No matter where you are in the college admissions process, whether you’re just beginning to research colleges or marching off to battle with the FAFSA and CSS Profile, you’ve got this!