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Navigating the financial aid process can seem daunting whether it’s your first time in college or you are a returning student. Use these step-by-step instructions to help guide you through the process.

Senior year in high school or earlier

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Apply for scholarships

Research and apply for scholarships beginning your senior year or earlier and keep applying every year you are in college.

Visit our free scholarship search tool to search over 4 million scholarships worth more than $22 billion.

Other helpful websites include:


Did You Know

Did you know?

The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for not only federal aid, but also state and institutional aid so it's important to fill it out every year you're enrolled in college.

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Starting October 1 of senior year in high school


Apply for
financial aid

Complete the FAFSA®
You can start the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) October 1 of your senior year. It is best to file the FAFSA as early as possible because some types of student aid are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Deadlines vary by state.

Visit for details.

Review your FAFSA Submission Summary
Your FAFSA Submission Summary, formerly known as the SAR (Student Aid Report), summarizes the information you provided on the FAFSA. It also includes your Student Aid Index (SAI) (previously known as the EFC). Schools use your SAI to determine how much financial aid you may be eligible to receive.

Complete the CSS Profile®
The CSS Profile is used by more than 250 colleges and universities for grants, scholarships, and other non-federal financial aid. Check with your college to see if a CSS Profile is required.

You can complete your CSS Profile as early as October 1 of your senior year. You should file no later than two weeks before the earliest priority filing date specified by your college.

For more details, visit

March of senior year in high school

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financial aid

Beginning in March, you will receive your award letters that detail the financial aid available to you from each college where you’ve been accepted.

Typically it contains:

Federal, institutional, and state awards that don’t have to be repaid.

Those that you informed your school about or those that the school is offering.

Money earned by working either on campus or off campus through a private nonprofit organization or public agency.

Federal loans
Money provided by the government that must be paid back.

If applying to more than one school, take the time to compare award letters to see what each school is offering you. Our free College Cost Comparison Tool makes it easy to look at your offers side by side.


End of spring through summer of senior year in high school

Compare federal and private student loans

If you need to borrow, compare federal and private student loans and choose the loans that best fit your needs. The following general comparison chart makes it easy to look at them side by side.





Offered by the government Offered by private lenders, banks, and financial institutions
Can be need-based, and do not need a credit check Credit-based
Interest rates are fixed Interest rates can be fixed or variable and vary by creditworthiness
Most federal loans have origination fees Most private loans have zero origination fees
A cosigner is not required for federal loans, although PLUS loans may require an endorser Adding a cosigner may improve the chance for approval and a lower interest rate
Multiple repayment plans available that range from 10 to 25 years, including options tied to your income Each private lender provides different repayment plans and benefits, so make sure you understand your options
Loan forgiveness programs may be available for eligible borrowers Loan forgiveness programs may be available for eligible borrowers and vary by lender

Discover® Student Loans is not affiliated with the federal government or any federal student aid discussed in this infographic.

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 with, and does not endorse this site.

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