01/30/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Applying for Financial Aid? Do Your Homework

It's no surprise that financial aid is a big part of a student's decision to go back to school and get a degree or job training -- in this economy, help to pay for school is needed now more than ever. The good news is that the federal government and private resources are offering more money than ever to meet this growing need. The challenge is to understand where to look for financial help, how to apply for it, and what to watch out for.

If you're planning on attending a college, university, or community college, your first step is to contact the financial aid office of your new school. A Web search will show you the steps you need to take to register for financial aid, and one of them will almost definitely be to apply for federal college money by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which can be found at You should fill out the form online -- it's faster that way -- and you'll need some basic information about your income and any savings accounts or other investments. If you can gather all of the information you need to fill out your taxes, you'll be all set, and if you need help filling out the form (and almost everyone does), call your college.

Once you submit the information to the government, you will get a Student Aid report, or SAR -- this will explain if you're eligible for any student financial aid from the United States government. While many people qualify for federal help, not everyone does -- but you still have to apply for federal aid before most colleges will decide if they will help you pay for college. Don't be discouraged if the government says they can't help you. Instead, call the financial aid office at your college and ask them what you need to do next -- and be sure to have your SAR handy when you call. They may want you to fill out another form, and while the idea of filling out yet another form may be a little frustrating, remember that this may be the form that can help you get college cash. Take a deep breath, complete the form, and ask for help if you need it.

If you're applying to technical or trade schools, there's a good chance they will ask you to fill out the FAFSA as well. Some tech schools might ask you to fill out forms for other government-based programs; if this is the case, be sure to check the website of these programs to make sure they're legitimate.

Once you qualify for money for college, it's time to ask some very important questions. Some scholarships or grants require you to pass all of your classes, or to keep a certain grade-point average -- if you don't, you might actually have to pay that money back. If you get a loan, you REALLY want to check out the terms of the loan -- find out what the interest rate is, when you have to start paying it back, and how long you'll be paying it back. Student loans are very serious business, since they can impact your credit rating -- so if you don't have to take a loan, don't.

Some programs will offer you a work study opportunity, where you pay off part of your education by working at the school. This can be a great deal, but remember you have to have time to study, be with your family, and maybe work your regular job, too. Before you finalize your financial aid plans, talk them over with a counselor -- they can help you see the big picture, and understand exactly what you're committing to.

Patrick O'Connor is director of college counseling at Roeper School in Birmingham, Michigan, a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and author of "College is Yours 2.0." He can be contacted at