Do a FAFSA practice test

Senior families, if you want to apply for need based financial aid, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA (free application for federal student aid), and you’ll need to submit it sometime between January and March (check the deadlines for your chosen colleges).  Unfortunately, you can’t begin filling out the form until it goes live on January 1, 2012.  But you can still get a head start if you’re the get-started-early type.

Here’s a link to a 2012-2013 FAFSA worksheet that will give you a good idea of the types of questions you’ll need to answer on the real form.  This is not the actual FAFSA, and you won’t be able to submit it.  But if a teacher gave her class a take-home practice test to get ready for a chemistry final, students would take it just to get an idea of what they knew and what they’d need to review before the real thing.  This FAFSA worksheet is like your FAFSA practice test.

No financial airbrushing

At the end of a family vacation, we’ve usually got a lot of photos to sort through.  Which ones do you keep?  If you’re like me, you keep the best ones—the photos where you look impressively young, thin and perfectly tanned.  Anything that didn’t capture you in the best light gets deleted.  It’s hard not to be proud when you’re picking which ones to show other people.  

But when you’re applying for financial aid, you should do the opposite.   

The worst thing you can do when you’re applying for financial aid is let pride get in the way of honesty when you’re filling out the forms.  Don’t inflate the amount of money you made last year.  Don’t overestimate the value of your home.  Don’t be afraid to admit that you struggled to pay the unforeseen medical expenses your family faced.  This is no time to be proud.  You’re not making conversation at a cocktail party here—you’re trying to give colleges an accurate, unfiltered view of your financial position so they can determine your financial need.

Don’t do any financial airbrushing to make yourself look better (or worse) than you really do.  Be honest, not proud.

Should you file a FAFSA if you don’t think you’ll qualify?


Every student should file the Fafsa every year, even if they do not expect to qualify for need-based financial aid. The formula is complicated enough that subtle changes from one year to the next can have a big impact on aid eligibility. Also, the Fafsa is a prerequisite for the unsubsidized Stafford and PLUS loans, which may be the least expensive option for students who need to borrow.”

Mark Kantrowitz
Founder of
Answered on The Choice

College essay, interview and financial aid videos are now in the Collegewise store

Videos of my three most popular Collegewise seminars are now available in our online store

  • “How to Write a Great College Essay”
  • “Financial Aid and Scholarships”
  • “College Interviews”

Each video is 1-hour long and sells for $12.99 as a streaming download here.

Seminars have been a Saturday morning tradition since I founded Collegewise in 1999.  We serve up some muffins and coffee—then I spend an hour preaching the Collegewise way and making complicated subjects simpler.  We want everyone to leave feeling more confident about their college planning, and I always encourage them to take the leftover muffins so I don’t eat them myself.

But we thought the seminars might appeal to a wider audience of people who don’t live near one of our offices.  So we brought in a film crew, they set up their lighting and cameras, and I gave our regularly-scheduled seminars to the Collegewise families (who graciously signed release forms to appear on the video).  There’s no scripting here and these aren’t polished infomercials—just me teaching Collegewise families how to write college essays, apply for financial aid, and have memorable college interviews.  It’s what you’d see if you were attending live as part of our Collegewise program (minus the muffins and coffee).  And for families in our counseling programs, you’ll now have free access to the videos to view if you’re unable to attend a seminar. 

Later this month, we’ll also be releasing these videos as hard-copy DVDs for teachers, counselors, non-profits and anyone else who works with students and wants to share them with a class.  But for now, go here to learn more or to purchase your download.  And if you have questions or feedback, feel free to email me at kevinm (at) collegewise (dot) com.  Our Collegewise families have always enjoyed these and I think you will, too.

The Net Price Calculator is here

I wrote a post last month about the then-soon-to-be-available net price calculator, an online tool that estimates your financial aid eligibility, subtracts that from the sticker price of your chosen college, and estimates how much you will need to pay to attend that school next year.  The federal government has mandated that colleges must have the tool available on their websites by October 29, 2011.  But if you don’t want to wait until then, the College Board has it available here.

Introducing the net-price calculator

Soon, it might get a lot easier for families to estimate exactly how much each college will cost–including the financial aid package you may (or may not) receive.  The federal government has mandated that by October 29, colleges and universities must post to their websites a new tool called the "Net Price Calculator."  You input the information financial aid forms ask for (like income and savings).  Then the net price calculator estimates your financial aid eligibility, subtracts that from the sticker price of the college, and tells you how much they estimate you will need to pay next year to send your student to that school.

There's some debate about just how helpful this is going to be, and it's described well in this article on The Choice blog.  And colleges are going to need to use plain-English, non-financial aid-y language to explain to people exactly what this calculator does and doesn’t mean.  In fact, colleges, here's my suggested language.

Use our net-price calculator
How are you supposed to know how much a college you’re applying to will actually cost if financial aid awards aren’t given until your acceptance letter arrives?  This net cost calculator might help.  It’s designed to help you estimate how much it would cost for you to enroll next year with us (you reapply for financial aid each year that you’re in college, so the calculator is only estimating next year’s costs).  It asks you the same types of questions you’ll later be asked on financial aid forms and estimates the amount of need-based financial aid you’ll qualify for based on the information you give us.  The difference between the cost and your aid is the net cost, and the calculator even does that math for you. 

Please don’t take the result as a promise (or a denial) of future financial aid.  We’ll need to ask you for a lot more detailed information when you fill out your official financial aid forms in January, and the result then might be different than what our calculator tells you now.  But we think that giving you a well-calculated estimate is better than giving you no information at all.  So be as accurate as you can when you’re inputting the numbers.  Then talk over the results with your parents and your counselor.  We’re hoping this calculator can help you make more informed decisions about where to apply.  And if you have any questions, please call our financial aid office—we’d be happy to explain anything that’s confusing. 

Bad ways to cut college costs


Want to avoid college debt? Don’t cut back on the time you spend at college. Instead, pick a school that does not cost so much. President Obama’s new nominee to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, co-authored in 1999 a paper, “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” showing that expensive big-name schools add little if any value to a college education. He and co-author Stacy Berg Dale demonstrated that the character traits that bring success — such as persistence and good humor — produce just as much income with a degree from Delaware State as one from Cornell."

Jay Mathews
Bad Ways to Cut College Costs

College financial aid and divorced parents

If you have questions about how college financial aid is determined for students with divorced parents, who's expected to pay for college, and what (if any) financial obligations fall to the stepparent, spend ten minutes on this page from and you'll probably get all your questions answered (for free). 

I have yet to find a more comprehensive, useful or cheaper website for information about how to pay for college.

Have questions about financial aid?

The folks at have a great FAQ section here. And in the "I can't believe it's free" department, they have a service called "Ask The Aid Advisor" in which over 100 financial aid administrators from across the country have volunteered to answer questions for free.  You fill out a form, submit your question, and get an email response within two weeks.  The site says they've already answered over 10,000 questions. 

Every college-bound student and parent who's concerned about paying for college should spend a weekend pouring over the information they give away for free at  There's no shame in admitting that you're concerned about college finances and need help paying for it.  But with resources like this available to you, you can be as informed as possible and make sure you don't make mistakes.