Financial aid is essential for most students to be able to afford to go to college. According to The College Board, more than two thirds of US college students receive at least some form of financial aid, whether in the form of student loans, scholarships, or grants.
Because most financial aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, students should be sure to get in their applications as soon as possible to ensure that they receive the maximum amount of funding possible.
Are you brand-new to the world of financial aid and student loans? Check out our Financial Aid Cheat Sheet to learn the basics!
But submitting FAFSA application is a notoriously complicated process, especially for first-time students. As such, you’re bound to have some questions like:
- What is the earliest I can submit my FAFSA application?
- When is the FAFSA deadline?
- When should students submit their financial aid applications?
- And when will they receive their financial aid package?
- What about scholarships?
Below, we discuss the typical college financial aid timeline for everyone from high school students to college graduates.
Financial Aid for High School Juniors
1. Scholarships for High School Juniors
High school juniors don’t yet have to worry about submitting the FAFSA application for financial aid, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t get a head start finding money for college: Junior year of high school is the perfect time to start applying for scholarships.
Though everyone tends to think of scholarships as something for high school seniors, the truth is, there are thousands of scholarships available each year for high school juniors (and for freshmen and sophomores, as well). The fact that most other students are not likely applying for these scholarships actually improves your chances of receiving at least some kind of funding, so get to it!
Take some time now to research the scholarships that you might qualify for (Scholarships.com is a great place to start) and submit as many as possible. Do make sure that you prioritize applying to scholarships that do not require an application fee.
If you do receive any scholarships your junior year of high school, make sure that the funds are specifically set aside for your college expenses. Winning a scholarship and using the funds to pay for stuff other than your college expenses kind of defeats the purpose.
Financial Aid for High School Seniors
1. Scholarships for High School Seniors
High school seniors should begin applying for scholarships as early as possible, making sure they get in all applications by deadline. Start by applying to national, state, and local scholarships.
Once you have been accepted to a university, you should also inquire about and apply to any scholarships that they offer to incoming freshmen, which can shave thousands off of your tuition bill.
2. FAFSA for High School Seniors
Senior year of high school is also the year that students will need to submit their FAFSA application in order to receive their financial aid package.
Students may begin submitting their FAFSA applications as early as October 1st. The federal deadline for online FAFSA applications is June 30, meaning that if you would like to be eligible for federal funding, you must apply no later than June 30.
To be eligible for state funding, students must submit their FAFSA applications by their individual state deadlines, which are often different (earlier) than the federal deadline. Further complicating matters is the fact that individual universities may also have their own different application deadlines for financial aid applications. For this reason, it is essential that students submit their FAFSA applications as early as possible.
3. Accepting your funds
Once you receive your financial aid package, you will need to review your options and accept the funding options that you’d like.
Financial aid packages will typically consist of a mix of federal and state grants, federal work study, and federal student loans; the exact breakdown of what is offered will vary from student to student depending on their unique financial situation. Scholarships will typically not be included in your financial aid package, as they are not typically distributed by the federal government.
It is important to note that all financial aid is not created equally. Some, like scholarships and grants, are truly free money; others, like student loans, will need to be paid back (with interest). For that reason, students should generally accept any and all free funds before turning to other types of financial aid. (Check out this article to learn more about what order you should accept your financial aid funds in.)
4. Filling any gaps
If after receiving your financial aid package you realize that you still cannot cover your tuition fees, you will need to turn elsewhere to find funding. If the gap is truly small, you may be able to work a summer job to make up the difference.
If the gap in funding is more substantial, you will either need to think about attending a less expensive university, find ways to reduce your college expenses, or apply for private student loans. Bear in mind that private student loans are typically harder to qualify for, and will likely carry higher interest rates (and fewer borrower protections) than federal student loans.
Financial Aid for College Freshmen/Sophomores/Juniors
1. Scholarships for College Students
Just like high school students, college students are typically eligible for thousands of national, state, and local scholarships every year. Research the scholarships that you might qualify for and get your applications in as early as possible to give yourself a competitive edge.
Additionally, speak to your university’s financial aid office or individual departments to see if there are any scholarships offered that you could apply for.
2. Federal Work Study for College Students
If you received federal work study funds as a part of your financial aid package, you will need to work in order to receive your funds.
A part of that process will be finding a job through your university that will accept federal work study funds. Most universities will have a page on their website dedicated to discussing work study opportunities. These jobs tend to fill very quickly, so you should apply to positions that you are interested in as soon as possible to ensure that you get a job that you are interested in.
Though it is always best to get a work study position that compliments your major or field of study, this isn’t always possible. Just remember that any job is better than no job!
Throughout the year, as you receive your work study funds, you should use that funding to pay down your student loans. In the very least, you should use the money to make interest-only payments (but hopefully more!) so that when you graduate the interest that has accrued will not capitalize and add potentially thousands of dollars to your balance.
3. FAFSA for College Students
One thing that many college students often do not realize is that they must complete a FAFSA application for each year that they need funding. This means that:
- During your freshman year, you must complete a FAFSA application for your sophomore year;
- During your sophomore year, you will need to complete a FAFSA application for your junior year;
- During your junior year, you will need to complete a FAFSA application for your senior year
As in high school, you should aim to get your FAFSA application in as early as possible (you can begin submitting applications on October 1st each year) and certainly no later than the federal and state deadlines.
4. Filling the gaps
As before, you’ll need to fill any gaps in your college funding, likely by turning to private student loans.
What Happens After Graduation
After graduation, students who relied on federal and private student loans will have a grace period of 6 months where they do not need to worry about making payments. That being said, interest will continue to accrue during this grace period (unless you have subsidized student loans) so you should begin making payments as soon as possible.
After your grace period ends, you will need to enter repayment or, if you have federal student loans, place your student loans into deferment or forbearance. Because your student loans will continue to accrue interest during deferment (again, unless you have subsidized federal student loans) or forbearance, this is generally not recommended.