Financial aid is where the fit is

Last week, the counselors in our Collegewise office in Newton, Massachusetts calculated that so far, their seniors had been awarded a total of $776,250 in scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. That doesn’t even include loans or work study. Almost a million dollars of free money that doesn’t have to be paid back. And that’s just for those applicants who applied early action and early decision.

What’s notable here is that like the rest of our Collegewise offices, our Newton counselors don’t offer scholarship services.

Collegewise counselors don’t do scholarship advising or matching. We don’t assist with financial aid paperwork. We don’t run a complex analysis of schools’ records of financial aid generosity. We’re happy to try to answer questions around these areas. And of course, we make sure our Collegewise families know what forms need to be submitted and when to apply for need-based financial aid. But we don’t profess to be financial aid or scholarship experts. So that’s not a service that we sell.

So how did our Newton office do it? They helped their students (1) find the right colleges that fit, (2) apply to a balanced list of schools that include plenty where they have a reasonable chance of admission, and (3) submit compelling applications and essays. A student who does those three things dramatically increases the chances of receiving a generous financial aid package.

Financial aid isn’t just a measurement of cost and what your family can afford to pay. Financial aid offices have a lot of power to offer more generous packages to students they think are right for the school and are more likely to attend. That’s why finding schools that fit, balancing your list, and submitting strong applications is a powerful financial aid strategy.

The mission of the financial aid office is to help those admitted students make up the difference between what they can afford to pay and what the school costs. But the specific aid package you’re offered, and whether or not that package is even more generous than what you’re eligible for, can have a lot to do with how badly the admissions office wants you at that school. A strong student who fits well with that college is more likely to get a generous award package that has more free money, with fewer loans or work study components.

In fact, a particularly desirable student can often receive a scholarship that has absolutely nothing to do with financial need. That’s why every year our Collegewise seniors across the country receive generous—and often unsolicited—offers of financial aid and scholarships from their chosen colleges. It’s not our focus. It’s a byproduct of what we do best.

If you want more financial aid, find the schools where you fit, including those that are most likely to accept you. Then convince them of that fit with your applications and your essays. That strategy is available to any student of any means who rejects the idea of applying to a long list of colleges based on name only and embraces the idea of matchmaking.

As the parents of this year’s juniors start down the path towards applying to college, here are a few past posts to help families take some productive steps now to pay for one of those colleges that eventually says yes.

First, some financial aid strategies for 9th-11th graders.

Here’s some encouragement to talk with your kids about college costs.

And some advice about how to balance your college list.

Finally, a reminder that affordability is part of fit.

Congratulations to our Newton office and to their students. They proved once again that financial aid is where the fit is.

Five traits that will help you win outside scholarships

Outside scholarships are awards from private companies and foundations rather than from the colleges themselves. They typically require separate applications that can also include essays, letters of recommendation, and even interviews. While the majority of money that helps students pay for college comes from filing a FAFSA and applying for need-based financial aid, every extra monetary boost can help. If you’re applying for outside scholarships, here are five traits to demonstrate if you want to increase your odds of winning.

1. Matchmaking
Like choosing colleges where you’re a good fit, the best way to win scholarships is to apply for those you’re most likely to win. Use a free matching site like (never pay for a scholarship matching service—all that information is available for free). Answer their profile questions as thoroughly as possible to get more accurate matching results. And pay very close attention not just to the eligibility requirements, but also the descriptions of what types of students the organization is looking to honor. For example, a scholarship from the local fire department that’s intended for “a student who’s shown outstanding commitment to their community” is not going to go to someone who participated in just one blood drive. Match your accomplishments, strengths, goals, etc. to the scholarships intended to reward what you have to offer.

2. Passion
I write here often that passion is contagious. An admissions officer—or a scholarship reader—won’t care about what you’re sharing if you don’t care about it yourself. Don’t hide how much you love math, debate, or your church. Don’t restrain yourself from expressing just how much you care about helping the homeless, coaching youth baseball, or restoring old cars. The descriptions of these activities are the “what,” but the feelings behind them are the “why.” And the why—when it’s strong—is where the passion is.

3. Potential
Potential is promise that has not yet been fully realized. And coupled with the appropriate qualifications and passion, it’s an enticing trait for scholarship readers. I’ve written a past post about how to demonstrate potential as you progress through high school. Now that you’re applying for scholarships, use the same post to help you identify examples of potential worth sharing.

4. Ambition
Ambition is the “strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” The best way to express that ambition in a scholarship application is to focus not just on what you want to achieve, but also what you’re willing to do, and what you’ve already done to get there. Just saying that you want to be the CEO of a corporation someday is not ambition. But expressing that goal, then describing how you want to learn about business through both a major and internships while in college, then illustrating how many business books you’ve already read as a high school student while also working a part-time job and rising through the ranks to become an assistant manager at a local store–that’s ambition. See the difference?

5. Marketability
Outside scholarship providers want to highlight the students they reward (thereby not-so-subtly announcing that the provider has generously provided a scholarship). Presentation matters. Keep your online presence clean. Have a simple, intelligible outgoing message on your phone. If the application requires an interview, don’t show up in yoga pants and flip-flops. I’m not suggesting that outside scholarships go only to those students who look a certain way. But every little bit helps. So while you should always be yourself, and never apologize for that, there’s nothing wrong with bringing the best authentic version of yourself to the scholarship application process.

FAFSA assistance for first-gen students

Low-income, minority, first-generation college students are statistically less likely to apply for college financial aid even though they often stand to benefit most from doing so. Form Your Future is a campaign designed to reach out not only to the students in this population, but also to volunteers and educators who want to help families complete the FAFSA. Among their many resources are a downloadable guide to the FAFSA, as well as all the necessary materials to host a FAFSA completion event in your community. If you’re a student (or parent) worried about your ability to pay for college and in need of both encouragement and advice, or if you’re someone who advises families, the website is definitely worth visiting.

Paying for college: a primer

The idea of trying to pay for college can be intimidating. The potentially big bills and the seemingly complex system of applying for financial aid and scholarships can be enough to stop some families from taking the productive steps they need to take to help finance their children’s educations. So here’s my primer on the topic. Each of these five recommendations are important, and they’ll take time and some focus to execute properly. But I’ve distilled them into this short list to help readers see that it’s not a 100-item to-do list. A family who, along with their applicant, does just these five things will almost certainly be in a much better financial position to pay for college.

1. Start saving for college as soon as possible, preferably in a 529 savings plan.
The more you manage to save, the less you’ll need to rely on financial aid. And the more control you’ll have in your college destiny.

2. Become a competitive applicant.
A challenging curriculum combined with good grades and test scores can earn you more financial aid, which brings me to…

3. Apply to schools where you have a strong chance of admission, ideally those where you’d be in the top 10% of the class of incoming freshmen.
One of the best ways to get the money you need is to apply to those colleges most likely to pay. Financial aid offices earmark a certain percentage of money every year just to lure academically appealing students. Apply where you’ll appeal.

4. File the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
The FAFSA is the starting point to apply for financial aid at any college. Some colleges also require additional forms, and those will always be explained on the financial aid section of each college’s website. But failing to file the FAFSA will take you out of the running for most available aid.

5. Apply for outside scholarships.
These are awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. I intentionally listed this last because while many families believe that scholarships are the best way to pay for college, these awards actually account for about 5% of the aid that’s available. Landing comparatively small awards of a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand, dollars is worth it, especially if paying for college is a big concern. But don’t ignore the other items on the list and hope that scholarships will cover the cost.

Save for retirement, or college?

Saving for college, and saving for retirement. Parents know both are important, and many of us worry that we’re not saving as much as we should for one or both. But if you’ve ever considered doubling down on the retirement stash and then just relying on loans to pay for college, consider this tip for parents from financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, as shared in this piece.

“They should not forgo college savings in favor of retirement savings. ‘So long as the interest rate on the [college] loan is higher than the rate paid on [retirement] savings, you’re better off saving for college AND retirement,’ says Kantrowitz. ‘You’ll end up with more money for retirement than if you had just borrowed for college and repaid those loans.’”

More reasons to file your FAFSA

Courtesy of Money Magazine’s 4 Things to Know About the New FAFSA, here’s a well-argued response to any family who resists filing the FAFSA:

“Just submitting a FAFSA will automatically qualify you for a low-cost federal student loan of up to $5,500 for freshman year. The interest rate on undergraduate student loans is currently 3.8% plus about 1% in fees, which works out to an annual percentage rate of roughly 4.1%. The FAFSA is also required for many other kinds of aid, including work/study jobs; federal parent PLUS loans; scholarships from state agencies, private foundations, and colleges; and, in a few cases, merit aid.”

Does the order of colleges listed matter on the FAFSA?

The FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) asks applicants to list the colleges to which they’d like their financial aid information sent (much like applicants must ask testing agencies to send official reports to colleges). Many families have wrestled with the question of whether or not the colleges could see where they’d placed them on the list. The concern—and not a totally unsubstantiated one—was that a school listed deep down or even last on your list might see that as a sign that you weren’t all that interested. And they might have been less likely to offer a more generous aid package that could entice you to attend.

Thankfully, the new FAFSA has changed that—colleges can no longer see the list of schools as they appear on the FAFSA. But while the FAFSA is tied to federal aid, the list of colleges on the FAFSA will still be submitted to your home state so they can evaluate your eligibility for state grants. Some of those grants are only available to students who ultimately enroll at one of the state’s institutions. And in those cases, it turns out that some states are a bit finicky about where they must be listed on the FAFSA.

Thankfully, the Department of Education has compiled the information about each state. Check your state’s policy, available here, and list your in-state public universities accordingly.

Applying vs. needing

There are certain questions that pop up annually during application season. And one of them appeared last week with one of our Collegewise counselors. We tell families that applying for need-based financial aid can’t hurt your chances of admission. But once again, a family heard from a friend that certain schools are “need-aware” or “need-sensitive,” both of which mean that they will have access to information about your financial need when they make admissions decisions. That’s actually true. But this family was also under the impression that simply applying for aid—or even just checking the box on the Common Application indicating that you intend to apply for financial aid—will automatically be held against you in the admissions process. That’s absolutely not true.

Applying for aid is not the same thing as needing aid. No college assumes that the fact you’re applying for aid automatically means they have to give it to you. I, and my colleagues at Collegewise (who collectively have worked in admissions at dozens of colleges), have never heard of a student being put at a disadvantage just because they applied for financial aid. Whether the school pays attention to financial need or not makes no difference during the application stage.

But needing financial aid can sometimes make a difference.

After you apply for aid, the government and the college use complex formulas to determine whether or not you qualify for need-based aid. If the calculations indicate that you’ll need aid, especially if you’ll need a lot of it, that can sometimes put you at a disadvantage at need-aware and need-sensitive schools, especially if the committee already has reservations about you (spotty grades, disciplinary problems, or other issues that can raise admissions concerns).

Needing a lot of aid can sometimes hurt your chances. But if you could go back in time and decide not to apply for aid, how would that have helped? You might have gotten in, but then you’d have no way to pay for it.

Unless you are absolutely certain that you can write a check for the full cost of attendance–not just the tuition, but the room and board, travel, and living expenses (check each college’s website for their cost of attendance)–you should apply for financial aid. An admissions office’s job is to admit the kids they want. The financial aid office’s job is to help families who qualify for aid find a way to pay for it. And even on campuses where those offices talk to each other, their goal is to bring in the kids they want, not to keep out anyone who might need help paying for it.

Three egregious FAFSA mistakes

Today, October 1, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) goes live. Here are the three most egregious FAFSA mistakes a family can make, all which are easy to avoid.

1. Not filing the form.
Every family with a student applying to college should file a FAFSA unless you (1) can painlessly write a check to cover the full cost of attendance for college next year, and (2) can somehow be absolutely certain that nothing in the future (job loss, unexpected medical costs, the decision to attend a more expensive college, etc.) will change your ability to fulfill #1.

2. Filing the form too late.
Please don’t procrastinate or wait to see where you’re admitted to file the FAFSA. Need-based financial aid is often offered on a first-come, first-served basis. There’s no need to cancel all of your weekend plans and pull sequential all-nighters to submit this form in the next 24-48 hours. But this is also not the kind of thing you want to wait to address until the impending deadline spurs you to action. You may not enjoy completing forms like this one (I certainly don’t). But you’ll enjoy the feeling of knowing you’ve filed a completed FAFSA in plenty of time to avail yourself of aid.

3. Paying to file the form.
If you type “FAFSA” into a search engine, you’ll find several sites that look deceptively like the actual FAFSA but actually charge you for access. Don’t fall for it. There’s only one legitimate FAFSA form, and you should never pay to file it (the “F” in FAFSA stands for “Free!”). Just access the correct form by visiting directly.

It’s rare that mistakes can be so potentially costly and simultaneously so easy to avoid. So now, I have a favor to ask. Please forward this post to someone with a college applicant in the house. You could potentially be doing them a huge financial favor at no cost to you.

Financial aid? It’s on your tab

Meredith in our Columbus, Ohio office shared this helpful update for seniors yesterday. The Common App recently added a “Financial Aid” tab to the application that includes not just helpful resources, but also a link to the financial aid page of each college an applicant has decided to apply to.

Here’s why that’s important.

No matter where you’re applying to college, the first step to request need-based aid is to file the FAFSA, which is released tomorrow. But some colleges also require additional forms or documentation for applicants to be considered for aid and scholarships. And the only way to make absolutely sure that you fulfill each college’s requirements is to follow the instructions on the financial aid page of each individual college’s website. Common App just made that research a little easier.