Where do you begin? It's a basic question. The answer's usually obvious. When you take a test, you begin by reading the instructions. When you travel, you begin by studying a map.
Now think about paying for college. You need financial aid, but where do you start? Well, the answer is right down the school hallwayin the guidance counselor's office. And while you might not find all the answers there, it really is a good place to begin your search.
Think of your counselor as a source of information rather than the ultimate expert on financial aid. Most guidance offices have plenty of financial-aid information on file, in catalogs or on their computer.
If you're home-schooled, or if you attend a small private school with limited resources, you can still take advantage of the services of a public-school guidance counselor. For assistance, just call the guidance office of your local public school.
Figuring out the Basics
To start with, find out all you can about the two broad categories of financial aid: need-based aid and merit-based aid. Need-based aid is granted to students who would otherwise have trouble meeting college costs. Merit-based aid is granted to students based on their performance in high school. In most cases, such things as grade-point averages and test scores make up the criteria for receiving this type of aid. Be sure to ask your counselor any questions you or your parents may have about the difference between these two basic forms of financial aid.
Obtaining any kind of financial aid requires some work. Financial aid will not come looking for you. But you don't need a professional consultant to do the work; by working with your guidance counselor and other sources, you can do the searchingand the findingon your own.
To begin the process, ask your guidance counselor for a copy of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Complete this form as soon after January 1 as possible in the year in which you plan to start college. A common question is, "Should I complete the FAFSA even though I'm sure I won't qualify for any government aid?" The answer is a definite yes. Why?
Filing the FAFSA will do two main things for you:
1) It serves as an application for federal student aidboth grants and loans. (In some cases, the FAFSA also serves as an application for state need-based programs.)
2) It will determine your personal "needs analysis," using a formula to figure out just how much money you'll need to pay for college. Even if you're ineligible for federal aid, colleges often use your "needs analysis" to determine whether they can give you any type of financial aidincluding work-study money and the college's own grant money.
Finding Scholarship Options
Your guidance office should also have plenty of information from local organizations that sponsor scholarships, both need-based and merit-based. These scholarships usually have several requirements that determine your eligibility. For example, a local hospital may offer a scholarship for students interested in studying nursing or medicine. A local teachers' or principals' organization may offer scholarships for students interested in becoming teachers.
Other local forms of financial aidlike educational endowments and trustsare sometimes offered by individuals or or-ganizations. Your counselor should have information and applications from these sources, too.
Colleges frequently send information to your guidance counselor regarding scholarships from their schools. Ask your counselor about these scholarships, and frequently check display boards that post information on such scholarships. If college representatives visit your high school, ask them about financial aid available through their specific colleges.