Navigating the FAFSA and College Financial Aid

The Financial Aid Process

Congratulations! You applied and have been accepted to college. Now that you know where you are going, you will need to figure out how to pay for it. Understanding the financial aid process and your options doesn't have to be complicated when you take it one step at a time.

Step 1: Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

It is important to complete the FAFSA® each year even if you do not think you will qualify for financial aid. Colleges and universities use the information supplied on the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for grants, scholarships, work-study awards and federal student loans. Submit your FAFSA as early as October 1 and remember that some schools award funds on a first-come, first-served basis.

Need help with the FAFSA but don't know where to start? Use our FAFSA assistant for tips and advice.

Did You Know?

Some colleges and universities may require you to complete a CSS Financial Aid Profile in addition to the FAFSA. The CSS Profile is an online application used to determine your eligibility for aid from your school that is separate from federal student aid.

Step 2: Review Your Student Aid Report (SAR)

Once you complete the FAFSA, the Department of Education will send you a SAR. This report summarizes the information you provided on your FAFSA and estimates your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC is lower than the college's cost of attendance, you will likely qualify for financial aid.

Did You Know?

It's important to carefully review your SAR so you can make any corrections to your FAFSA, if necessary.

Step 3: Compare Your Financial Aid Packages

Each school listed on your FAFSA will receive a copy of your SAR and use the information to prepare a financial aid package for you. Your financial aid package, known as your Award Letter, will list the grants, scholarships and work-study funds the school is allocating to you, along with your eligibility for federal student loans.

Did You Know?

Compare your financial aid packages to understand the difference between the costs of the colleges you want to attend and the financial aid offered at each.

Step 4: Maximize Grants and Scholarships Before Applying for Student Loans

When applying for financial aid, remember to research grants and scholarships available through the government and private organizations. Many schools automatically consider you for grants and scholarships when you apply for admission. For those not offered by your school, you can visit:

  • Discover Student Loans Free Scholarship Search is a fast and easy way to search 3 million scholarships worth more than $18 billion. Our scholarship database is updated daily. No registration required.

You can also visit:

Did You Know?

Some schools award only need-based scholarships, so it's important to search other sources for scholarships based on academic or other achievements.

Step 5: Compare Federal and Private Student Loans

After you maximize grants, scholarships and other free financial aid, you may find you have remaining costs to cover. If you need to borrow, compare federal and private student loans to find the loans that best fit your needs.

Did You Know?

When evaluating loan options, consider origination fees, interest rates, monthly payment and the total cost of the loan.


FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.