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08/16/2013 03:22 pm ET

The Financial Aid Lingo You Need to Know

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By Lily Herman

The college admissions process is stressful enough. By the time you get to filling out your financial aid forms, everything might just feel like a confusing, acronym-filled blur. FAFSA? SAR? EFC? Who even knows what all those terms mean? But don’t worry! Below is a list of all the financial aid terminology a pre-collegiette needs to know to survive funding your education. Pin this article for future reference!

Financial Aid Policies

So you’ve submitted your applications and checked that little box on your college applications that says you’ve applied for financial aid. Do college admissions officers even notice that little box? Does it even matter if they do? One aspect of financial aid that many pre-collegiettes don’t know much about is the difference between need-blind and need-aware schools and how much they can affect your college prospects. But, of course, Her Campus has you covered!

Need-Aware Colleges:

Need-aware schools are able to see your financial aid status, but this does not mean that every other part of your application is moot; it just means they have something extra to look at when they are on the fence between applicants. The vast majority of colleges are need-aware due to the fact that they only have so much financial aid to give out every year, and with more applicants needing more financial assistance with every admissions cycle, it’s becoming harder for schools to meet the demand.

There has been quite a lot of controversy lately over the ethics of such a policy. For example, should a school accept a less qualified applicant because they can pay full tuition, but reject a more qualified applicant because they need lots of financial aid? It’s a difficult question to answer that more and more colleges are faced with every year.

Need-Blind Colleges:

In contrast with need-aware colleges, need-blind colleges do not factor in financial need when looking at your application during the admissions process. What this does is ensure that a school is looking at merit (your grades, extracurricular activities, test scores, etc.) without being swayed by your ability to pay or not pay for the school.

Applying for Financial Aid

Financial aid is a terribly confusing (but also extremely important) part of the college admissions process. If you can’t pay for college, you can’t go. Of course, it’s important to know what financial aid is before you start figuring it out! At its simplest, financial aid is money you need to assist you with paying for college. It can come in many forms, including scholarships, grants, or loans.

So, what are some financial aid terms you need to know to get started? Keep reading!

College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile:

The CSS Profile is created and run by the College Board (the same people who bring you the lovely SAT) to help provide more particulars about your financial situation. Though the FAFSA (see below) helps give colleges a general picture of your financial aid situation, the CSS profile can help fill in some gaps and provide more detailed information. The profile needs to be filled out at least two weeks prior to your first college or major scholarship deadline. It costs $25 to send the profile to one college and $16 to send it to every additional college.

One important thing to note is that while a CSS profile is not required by all schools, at least 350 different colleges use it, and the number of schools that ask for a CSS profile is growing every year.

Estimated Cost of Attendance (ECA):

Your ECA describes how much it will cost you to attend your school (talk about scary!). Before you start exclaiming, “Wait, can there really be that many zeros in my tuition?!”, notice that it does say “cost of attendance,” in that the number includes everything necessary for attending college: i.e., tuition, room and board, textbooks, traveling expenses, personal expenses, and a whole lot more. Obviously, all of these factors vary greatly from one person to another (for example, one person might only be traveling home twice per year, which can slash travel costs). Although this number might seem gigantic, it may not be how much you will actually pay, depending on your spending habits (hence, “estimated”).

Estimated Family Contribution (EFC):

The EFC is part of your Student Aid Report (arguably the most crucial point), and it explains how much your family is expected to pay for your college education based on several financial factors, including taxed/untaxed income; your parents’ jobs, assets and benefits; family size; and how many of your siblings are currently enrolled in college. Although the number is not set in stone, the idea of the EFC is to show how much money you should be receiving in aid (subtract your EFC from your ECA, and you’ll get the amount of money you need from financial aid!).

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA):

The FAFSA is the basic financial aid application that every single person who desires college financial assistance must fill out (put a gigantic red circle around the word “must”!). It is used to determine how much you and/or your family can pay for your education. Filling out the FAFSA is beyond important to any college applicant’s journey, as it is used for student loans and grants as well as for scholarships or financial aid packages given out by colleges.

The FAFSA application opens on January 1st and ends on June 30th. Though that seems like a long time from now, it’s crucial that you get on your FAFSA application right away! The faster you send it in, the more time your financial aid office has to process it and work with you to create a tuition plan that fits your needs. Furthermore, it’s also critical to look at the specific FAFSA deadlines for your state and/or college. For example, some state have deadlines that end in April or May, and you definitely don’t want to miss out on financial aid just because you thought that June 30th deadline was universal.

Another important point to remember with the FAFSA is that it must be filled out every year you’re enrolled in college; the financial aid fun doesn’t stop after freshman year!

Click here to read the full story on HerCampus.com

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