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When Should You Apply for Financial Aid?

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A guest post from Shannon Vasconcelos, Director of College Finance & Social Media, College Coach


Where I sit in Massachusetts today, the temperature has dropped into the 50s, the leaves have started to change, and the lattes have been spiced with pumpkin. Fall is here, that means cozy sweaters, apple picking, and, for high school seniors and their parents, applying for financial aid. Below I answer the most frequently asked questions about the timing of your financial aid application.


When is the soonest I can apply for financial aid?

The financial aid application process begins for high school seniors each year on October 1. That is when the FAFSA (required by every U.S. college to apply for financial aid) and the CSS Profile (required in addition to the FAFSA by about 300 colleges, mostly private schools) open up for the upcoming school year. Note that you are currently able to submit a FAFSA and Profile for both the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years. If you are the parent of a high school senior, it is the 2020/21 application(s) that you want to submit. The 2019/20 forms are for currently enrolled students who are still applying for financial aid for this academic year.


What is the deadline to apply for financial aid?

Unfortunately, while the October 1 application start date is standardized, there is no one application deadline I can point to. Every college sets their own financial aid application deadline, but common deadlines range from November 1 (for students applying Early Action or Early Decision) all the way through March 1 (for students applying Regular Decision). Be sure to check the websites of the colleges your child is applying to in order to determine their earliest deadline.


Do I have to submit my admissions application before submitting my financial aid application?

No. It doesn’t matter which application you submit first—the colleges will match up your admissions application with your financial aid application on their end, after they have received both. However, you do need to know at least one college that you’re applying to in order to make an initial submission of the FAFSA. You can always add additional schools to your FAFSA later, as you finalize your college list.


Is it true that I should apply for financial aid as soon as possible to get the most financial aid?

Sort of. While, at many colleges, you are fine applying for financial aid right up until their deadline (or even later!), there are some schools that may start to run low on funding as the weeks and months of the application process tick by and may offer less generous aid packages later in the process. This does not mean you need to stop reading this article and immediately file your FAFSA before it’s too late, but it’s probably a good idea to get your financial aid application in sometime in October, or at least before your earliest admissions application deadline. That relatively early submission will allow you to feel confident that you will be in the running for the best financial aid packages just about everywhere.


Is there any reason not to submit my aid application as soon as possible?

For most families, no. However, if you have a major purchase, such as a house, car, home renovation, etc. on the near horizon, you may want to complete that purchase first, spending down some of the funds you have in the bank, so that you don’t need to report that cash on your child’s FAFSA. Do not wait so long, however, that you miss a college’s financial aid application deadline. Applying on time with more assets is usually still better than applying late.


What about merit scholarships? When do I need to apply for those?

The good news is you probably don’t need to apply for merit scholarships at all. Occasionally, a college will have a special merit scholarship application that you need to complete, but most colleges will automatically consider all of their applicants for scholarships based simply on their admissions application. Take note, however, that some colleges require you to apply for admission by an Early Action or Priority deadline in order to be considered for their Honors Program or any scholarships, so be sure to check the website of each college on your child’s list for any such requirements.


Will applying Early Decision give me an advantage or disadvantage in applying for scholarships?

This is a tricky one, and my best answer is probably not… at least not right now. When you apply to a college through their Early Decision (ED) process, you are agreeing up front to attend, if admitted, regardless of what, if any, scholarship funding they choose to offer you. You would think, then, that colleges have very little incentive to offer scholarships to ED applicants, as they’ve already committed to attend without any scholarship offer. Why spend money on a student if you don’t have to? In practice, however, I have rarely seen colleges intentionally low-ball students who have applied ED. Conversations with my colleagues at Bright Horizons College Coach, who have worked at dozens and dozens of colleges across the country, have led me to reach the conclusion that most (though not all) colleges will provide similar scholarship offers to Early and Regular Decision applicants. While the risk of a lower offer is there, and should be considered before deciding to apply ED, I think the larger financial cost to Early Decision applicants stems from the loss of the ability to compare scholarship offers from other schools, and potentially negotiate to get those offers higher. In short, when you apply ED, you give up the ability to shop around for the best offer.


Note, however, that National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) just days ago voted to remove from its code of ethics a provision which prohibited the offering of special scholarship incentives only to student who apply ED. Though unlikely to affect this year’s college application cycle, parents of younger students should keep an eye out in the future for scholarship opportunities offered just to ED applicants. Future college applicants may have to weigh the benefit of potentially receiving an ED-only scholarship from a college with the cost of not being able to compare offers from other schools when deciding whether or not to apply Early Decision.

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