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    Where's the Cash?

    Answers to 15 common questions about completing financial aid applications.

    If you've started your search for college cash, then you're probably feeling like you've stumbled into a foreign language class. Could you use a little time in College Finance 101? You've come to the right place. Here are answers to some common financial aid questions.

    1. Is there someone who can walk me through the financial aid maze?

    That's what financial aid counselors are for! It's their job to be your tour guide through it all. So if you have a question, call and ask someone. Don't feel like you're being a pest. And if you don't understand something, speak up. In addition to counselors, there are many other resources available as well, such as online budget calculators for each state, scholarship databases, and a multitude of helpful websites.

    2. What questions should I ask financial aid officers?

    Ask about the percentage of students who receive financial aid at that school and the types of aid you might expect to receive. Find out about the different types of merit aid (aid based on performance) and need-based aid (aid based on your family's financial need). Ask them to help you understand all of the terms you need to know—it's a new language for most students and parents.

    It's also important to think about value. Find out where your money is going. If you're paying for room and board, ask what kinds of meal plans the school has. Look at the residence halls. Are they air-conditioned? Are they carpeted? What is the student-to-faculty ratio? How many majors does the school offer? You and your parents need to evaluate the cost based on what you'll get from a given school.

    3. Where do I start looking for financial aid?

    Begin in the guidance counselor's office at your high school. You should probably do this during your junior year. Let the counselor know you're interested in hearing about any and all scholarships that come across his or her desk. And get to know your guidance counselor—he or she should know you by name because you're in the office so often!

    During your senior year, plan to get in touch with the financial aid offices at any colleges you're considering, and let them know you're interested in their school. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know anything about paying for college. They'll be happy to help.

    There's also a wealth of information online regarding financial aid and scholarships. Check out the list of scholarships at

    4. What's the FAFSA and why is it so important?

    FAFSA stands for "Free Application for Federal Student Aid." It's a snapshot of your family's financial strength based on income, taxes paid, the size of your family, the ages of your parents, and any assets your parents may have other than your home. All of that information is used to evaluate your eligibility for various federal grants, loans, and work-study opportunities, along with your eligibility for aid available from your home state and college. It's vital to keep in mind that all roads to financial aid begin and end with the FAFSA.

    5. How do I know what aid I'm eligible for?

    The FAFSA helps determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—what the government believes your family can contribute to the cost of your higher education. And that number is then electronically fed to the schools of your choosing. That's why it's critical that your parents complete the FAFSA.

    6. When should I start looking for aid?

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