About the Process
On most college applications you will be asked whether you will be requesting financial aid. If you indicate "yes", you will be directed to that school’s procedures.
If you will be seeking need-based aid (grants, loans, work-study), you will always be asked to fill out the FAFSA when it becomes available. Many private schools will require the CSS-Profile which can be filled out on-line in the fall.
Some schools may even ask you to fill out their own form, which will employ their unique institutional methodology. Remember that merit scholarships are awarded independent of need, so if you feel your son will qualify for an award of this type, you may wish to skip the need based process.
For Early Decision candidates, the CSS Profile or the college’s own form will generate an estimated package which can be fine-tuned after the FAFSA is filed. If this package seems unacceptable to you, it is always possible to request a review. Do this quickly, since favorable ED decisions must be answered by the student in 2-3 weeks.
FAFSA forms will be filled out on line, after Jan. 1 and hopefully by Feb. 15. Since this is an income based formula, you can estimate your last year's income before your tax return is completed, so you can receive an SAR and an EFC. We urge you to complete the FAFSA in January since it is not as easy form to complete the first time, it requires multiple PINS, multiple school codes, etc. The sooner it is in, the sooner it can be processed and reviewed for corrections.
In our experience, most families are disappointed with their financial aid packages unless their son received a large merit scholarship. With this in mind, we always urge our families to construct a financial safety net in addition to an admissions safety net. Typically this will take the form of applying to a state school in their own state (Pitt, PSU, Temple, West Chester, Rutgers), another state (U of Delaware, U of Maryland), or to a school known for its generous merit scholarships.
It is always better to be proactive, applying to 6-8 schools in the fall, rather than trying to play catch-up in the winter when much of the money has already been awarded. You may feel we are asking your son to apply to schools that do not share the same academic prestige as others on his list. However, our experiences motivate this cautious approach. Your son may get into a school but receive an extremely disappointing (and prohibitive) package. Please review with your son any financial limitations you feel you may have before you run into an unfortunate situation next spring.