Financial aid can be one of the most confusing parts of being a college student. There are so many factors to learn – what is it? How do you get it? What do all the different parts mean? How can you be sure you’re making the right decision?

If you’re not sure what financial aid questions you should be asking, don’t worry! We’ll break it all down for you below.

What is financial aid?

Financial aid is money available to help pay for college. It can come from many different sources, including the federal government, your state, school, and private organizations. This includes forms of aid such as grants and scholarships, work-study, and loans (more on that below).

What are the types of financial aid?

There are a few different types of financial aid, including:

  • Grants: money that is given by the federal government and does not need to be repaid
  • Scholarships: money that comes from a variety of sources, and does not need to be repaid
  • Work-study: a program through the federal government where you work in exchange for money to help pay for school
  • Loans: money you borrow through the federal government or through a private lender that must be repaid, with interest

How do you get financial aid?

To apply for federal student aid, you must file the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) every year. (This covers grants, work-study, and federal student loans.) From there, the government will determine your eligibility for aid, as well as how much you’re eligible to receive.

Many schools offer their own financial aid. Talk to your financial aid office to find out what types of aid they offer, and how you can apply.

You can also explore private forms of aid, such as organizations that give away scholarships (like us!), websites that help you find scholarships, and lenders that offer private student loans to help cover college costs.

What is the total cost of attendance?

You may know how much tuition is at the schools you’re considering, but do you know how much the true cost to attend is? Tuition isn’t the only thing you need to plan for. You also need to know how much housing, meal plans, student fees, textbooks, and more cost. If you’re still choosing between schools, knowing all of this information will help you compare the total cost of each.

What are your financial aid deadlines?

Every source of financial aid has different deadlines for when you can apply, so make sure you make note of these! Plus, the earlier you apply, the more aid is available. It’s important to keep track of all financial aid timelines and apply as early as possible so you’re not missing out on aid.

Do you offer need-based or merit-based aid? (Or both?)

Need-based aid is based off just that – your financial need. Merit-based aid is based off of your academic performance, such as GPA or SAT/ACT test scores. Understanding your school’s answer will help you figure out what type of aid you’re most likely eligible for, and if you’ll need to search for additional aid.

Do you front-load grants or scholarships?

Some schools give more grants and scholarships to freshman or during your first few years of school, and offer less later on. Ideally, you’ll receive the same amount of aid every year as long as your circumstances don’t change. Still, knowing the answer to this question can save you a lot of trouble down the road.

If I win an outside scholarship, will it impact my financial aid?

While your school may apply any amount you receive from an outside scholarship toward the balance of your loan or work-study, that isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, in some cases, winning a scholarship from an outside source can reduce the amount of aid you’re receiving from a scholarship or grant through your school. Be sure to ask this financial aid question before applying for outside scholarships so you know how your school applies the money if you win another award.

When will I receive my financial aid award letter?

Award letters (that break down what types and how much aid you’re being offered) are typically sent out in March or April, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. When you’re deciding what school to attend, comparing each award letter can be the deciding factor for which school you decide on. Once you do, breaking down your award letter each year can help you determine if you’re going to need any additional forms of aid to cover any gaps for the upcoming school year.

Do you offer tuition payment plans?

Tuition payment plans are sometimes an option to avoid borrowing loans if you don’t have the total sum up front. In this case, some schools allow you to set up a plan to make payments throughout the school year, so the total cost is split into more manageable payments.

Can I appeal for more aid if my financial circumstances change?

If your financial situation changes unexpectedly, schools may offer a financial aid appeal process to get more aid. Life happens, so it’s important to know how you’ll be covered in the event something unexpected comes up.