When you're navigating the college admissions process, finding out which school you’ll attend is one major piece of the puzzle. The other: figuring out how to pay for it. But before you break a sweat, know that understanding the financial aid process and your options doesn't have to be complicated. Just take it one step at a time.

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

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form is required to be considered for federal or government funded student aid, and states and colleges use the information to dole out their own grants, scholarships, and loans, too. (That’s why you should fill it out whether or not you expect to get any federal aid!) To complete the application, apply for a FSA ID (this allows you to sign electronically), gather the documents and information you’ll need to apply (such as tax returns and Social Security numbers), and fill it out. The federal deadline isn’t until June 30th, but the application becomes available October 1st of each year and it’s best to get it done as soon as you can because some funds are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Some colleges and universities may require you to complete a CSS Profile® in addition to the FAFSA. This 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 Student Aid Report, or SAR. This report summarizes the information you provided on your FAFSA and estimates your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

It’s crucial that you review the SAR for accuracy, and make sure all the details match what was on your FAFSA application, since schools use this information to determine your eligibility for aid.

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 (also known as your award letter). This document will list the grants, scholarships and work-study funds the school is offering you, along with your eligibility for federal student loans.

Awards letters from each school can look different. The Award Letter Comparison Tool can help you compare financial aid packages from different schools you’ve been accepted to. You’ll be able to see the difference between the costs of these colleges and the financial aid offered by each.

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

Remember to research grants and scholarships available through the federal government, your state, the school you hope to attend, and private organizations. These should be your first option, since the money doesn’t have to be paid back. Here’s some resources to try:

When searching for scholarships, think outside the box. Some awards are tied to need and others are based on academic achievements. You may also be eligible for scholarships based on your extracurricular activities, community service, athletic participation or achievement, skills or talents, identity or background, or even your or your parents’ employers or military service.

Step 5: Consider Federal and Private Student Loans

After you maximize grants, scholarships and other free financial aid, you may find you have remaining costs to cover. That’s when you may want to consider loans. Compare both federal and private student loans and choose what best fits your needs.

When comparing student loans, consider fees, interest rates, monthly payment and the total cost of the loan.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

CSS Profile® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated, and does not endorse this site.

Scholarships.com™ is a trademark of Scholarships.com, LLC and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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