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    Avoid These Money Mistakes

    How to successfully navigate the financial aid search.

    Cherissa Roebuck

    Paying for CollegeYou've browsed through brochures, talked to admissions counselors and surfed through college websites. Finally, your student has decided on his or her dream college. And while your future college student is mulling over possible majors, the one question looming in your mind is: "How are we going to pay for it?"

    Most families rely on some form of financial aid to help fund their child's college education. Applying for and receiving financial aid is a process that requires a little patience, a lot of paperwork and a substantial investment of time. If you go through the process successfully, you could end up with more financial aid than you ever thought your student would be eligible to receive.

    So how can you navigate the process successfully? Experts suggest that parents and students avoid five common mistakes:

    Mistake No. 1: Starting the Process Too Late

    Applying for financial aid is a process that takes several months to complete. If you're addressing your student's high school graduation announcements and still haven't started the college financial aid process, you've waited too long!

    In fact, many families are intimidated by the financial aid process. That intimidation causes them to put it off, and then when reality sets in, they've missed the opportunities for financial aid that they might have received if they had started earlier.

    Most financial aid professionals recommend that families begin the financial aid process no later than the fall of their student's senior year. Once your student has decided on possible colleges and universities, contact the financial aid departments at those schools to find out what paperwork needs to be completed to apply for institutional aid (grants and scholarships funded by the school) and federal aid (grants, scholarships and loans funded by the government).

    And it's never too early to start hunting for scholarships. During your student's junior year in high school, start looking for independent scholarships at the community, regional and national level. Check out scholarship search sites like, and ask your child's high school guidance counselor for potential scholarship sources.

    Whatever you do, it's important to be intentional and to spend a good amount of time looking for potential sources of financial aid. "Financial aid is not going to just fall in your lap," says one financial aid professional. "It takes work, and parents need to invest time into investigating possible scholarship and grant sources."

    According to the experts, getting an early start can mean the difference of thousands of dollars in financial aid—a great return on your investment of time.

    Mistake No. 2: Forgetting the FAFSA

    Another common mistake that families make is not completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form makes qualified families eligible for federal financial aid, and many universities also use the information from the FAFSA to determine which students will receive institutional aid.

    Some families assume they won't qualify for aid and don't apply at all. Others fill out parts of the FAFSA, but don't ask to be considered for all types of aid. These families are limiting their financial aid options by not seeking out every possible aid source.

    The FAFSA is critical in the financial aid process. It's really important for students to submit it, and to do so on time. There's always a limited amount of institutional aid available, and, for the most part, it is going to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

    The FAFSA should be completed in the winter (after January 1) of your student's senior year in high school. If you want to get a head start on the financial aid process, you can fill out the FAFSA pre-application worksheet at This practice form can help students and parents become familiar with the types of questions as well as the required information and financial documents the family will need to complete their official FAFSA.