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What High School Students (And Their Parents) Can Do to Get the Most Financial/Merit Aid for College

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Where a student attends college, how much it will cost the family, and whether they end up with a little or a lot of debt depends on everyone making college finances a priority. It's never too early to start planning for how to pay for college. Here are some things students and parents can do as early as ninth grade through to the end of the admissions process. Beginning early takes the pressure off of a student's senior year and also insures that everything is done correctly and on time.

Pointless Ignorance About the Topic of Financial Aid

The problem is not just higher and higher college costs, but a real lack of knowledge about how to prepare for the expense of an undergraduate education. Even more crippling is the confusion, panic and fear people feel about college finances, which often leads high school families to either ignore altogether -- or wait until the last minute -- to complete college financial forms.

And there are so many misconceptions about what kind of aid is available and who qualifies. For example, many parents have outright said to me, "We're not rich, but we're also not poor. From what I hear, my kids will never qualify for financial aid. Why even bother applying?" The truth is there is need-based and also merit aid available for many more students than most parents think.

Let's start by my defining the terms financial aid and merit aid so that you know what I'm talking about.


Financial Aid

According to Kantrowitz and Levy's Filing the FAFSA, "Financial Aid is money given, earned or loaned to help pay for college. [It] can come from federal and state governments, colleges, businesses, and private and social organizations."

Merit Aid defines Merit Aid as "...the general term for grants, scholarships and discounts that a college awards to an admitted student without regard to financial need. Merit aid may be based on academic or athletic achievements, special talents such as music, where the student lives or other demographic characteristics." These grants are usually offered to students who show academic promise AND they do not have to be paid back!

What most people don't realize is that students and parents can do a lot during the ninth, 10th, 11th, and, of course, 12th grades to maximize their chances of receiving financial/merit aid. That is what this blog is all about.

Everything Counts

Everything counts when it comes to financial aid: 1) Getting as high a GPA and test scores as you can is a big step in the right direction. 2) Knowing "who you are" as a person so that you can choose colleges that are a good fit academically and personally is another. 3) Becoming acquainted with financial aid terminology and the process is yet another. 4) Even more important is determining what college costs and financial resources are applicable to you. 5) Finally, what's key is locating the best resources with the advice and information about what to do every step along the way.

Here are a few things that students and parents should know about and do as early as possible:

I. Getting Good Grades and Test Scores
(Relevant to ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th graders)

The higher your cumulative GPA and test scores are, the higher your chances are of getting into colleges and also receiving financial or merit aid.


One parent told me that with a 3.5 GPA his son would have been eligible for $16,000 worth of merit aid, but with only a 3.1, $5000 was offered. This made the difference between his son attending his number one choice school and another one that was lower on his list.

One of the most confusing topics in college admissions is how GPA fits different college admission requirements. High schools don't use the same GPA scales -- there are 4.0 un-weighted scales, 5.0 weighted scales, percentile and letter grade scales. One's GPA is dependent upon the high school he or she attends. Generally speaking, a B average is the minimum GPA required for acceptance to good four-year colleges, but as you go up the college selectivity ladder it becomes much higher. It is also true that the higher your GPA, the more merit aid you might be offered. Colleges use scholarship funds to lure better students to their schools.

Want to know the GPA requirements for specific colleges?
+ offers the average GPAs of last year's enrolled freshmen

• Test Scores

For obvious reasons, colleges are in a race to attract the best students they can. Many are also obsessed with trying to get high rankings in the likes of US News & World Report. While more and more colleges are making testing optional, the vast majority of schools still require them. Therefore, it is very useful for students to know the test scores of previously accepted students at colleges in which they are interested. The higher the test scores, the more likely merit aid monies will be offered.

Want to find out test score requirements and averages for various colleges?

+ Every year. I spend a lot of time pulling together a list of about 300 most popular colleges in the U.S. with their up-to-date 25th-75th percentile test scores, acceptance rates, number of students and use of the Common App. You can find this information in the Application Info section on my free admissions website

+ US News offers the same information and more in their yearly Best Colleges magazine and website.

Students who prepare for the SAT and/or ACT tend to perform better on standardized tests. There are plenty of free test preparation websites, relatively inexpensive books, and many test tutoring groups that charge fees. I will be identifying the best of these in one of my next blogs.

II. Identifying Colleges That Are a Good Fit
(Appropriate for whenever a student is ready; 10th or 11th grade is not too early to start)

College admissions officers can sense when you have done your homework and know how and why they and you are a good fit. When you help admissions see this, you actually increase your desirability as an applicant, and therefore, chances for acceptance and possibly financial and merit aid.

How do you determine what colleges are good fits?

+ Figure out what you want in a college. One way of doing that is to fill out the adMISSION POSSIBLE® College Selection Questionnaire

+ After you identify what you want, use an online college search program to generate a list of colleges. College Board's bigfuture College Search is a good place to start.

+ Read about the colleges in The Fiske Guide, Colleges that Change Lives and internet sites like the NICHE (formerly College Prowler) and

+ Take a look at my two previous HuffPost blogs, "Seven Steps to Putting Together a Great College List," and "5 Biggest Mistakes Applicants Make When Putting Together Their College Lists," where I offer specific advice about how to put together a great college list.

III. Determining What Your Potential College Costs And Financial/Merit Aid Resources Will Be
(Good information for 9th and 10th grade parents to start gathering; critical information for 11th grade students and parents; "must do" for 12th graders and parents)

There is a lot you can do to increase your chances for receiving financial and/or merit aid. The most important thing is to complete each and every financial form with accurate, detailed information for individual colleges, FAFSA and PROFILE and by their respective due dates. Missing financial aid deadlines is the major reason students end up leaving possible funding on the table.

Here are definitions of the terms Expected Family Contribution, FAFSA AND PROFILE, each of which is important in completing financial aid forms.


Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

EFC is a dollar figure that represents the amount of money that a college expects a family to pay, at a minimum, for one year of schooling. Just so you know, a college's cost of attendance includes tuition, room and board, books, transportation and personal expenses. The difference between a family EFC and the cost of attendance equals a student's demonstrated financial need.

How do you determine your EFC?

+ College Board's EFC Calulator

+ FinAid's EFC

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

A financial aid form provided by the federal government that is required by most public colleges and universities from students not only seeking loans and work-study jobs, but also scholarships and grants.

Want to learn about FAFSA?

+ Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy's. Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid


A financial Aid form provided by the College Board and required by many private colleges for students seeking financial aid.

What's the best resource for completing the FAFSA?

+ How to Complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE

IV. Other Considerations Are Financial and Merit Aid
(Useful to know whatever year in school students are in)

Here are a couple of additional things you should know as you look for colleges and financial/merit aid from them.

• Sometimes it costs less to attend private rather than public schools because certain private colleges, especially small, liberal arts colleges, are very generous with merit aid.

How do I find these colleges?

+ This article is a great start if you want to know which colleges are giving merit aid: "Colleges and Universities That Award Merit Aid," Education Life, The New York Times, July 16, 2013

+ Another good source is "Most Students Receiving Merit Aid," US News online

• Because colleges value geographic diversity in their student body, it is often easier to get accepted to and receive financial/merit aid from colleges far away from your own home state.

What's the best resource for finding far-away colleges?
+ "The Geographic Hook," The College Solution, Lynn O'Shaughnessy, FT Press

Note: The content of this blog came from a presentation I gave at the Journalism Education Association/National Scholastic Press Association Convention in San Diego, California, April 11, 2014. Tim Roberts, President of San Dieguito Academy, Vonda Garcia, Director of Financial Aid at Cal State San Marcos and Suzanne Goulet, San Diego State University were the other speakers.

My next blog will provide a list of other "BEST" financial aid book and web resources.