Financial aid is a complicated process that requires many steps. This month-by-month calendar should provide you with enough information to easily navigate through the student loan application process.
January Beginning on January 1, file your FAFSA online. By filing online, your FAFSA will be processed much faster than paper FAFSA applications. Many scholarships also begin accepting applications in January, so start surfing!
February Be on the lookout for a “Student Aid Report" (SAR). This report is a confirmation of the data you submitted on the FAFSA. If you need to make changes, follow the instructions or contact the school's financial aid office. You can also call 1-800-4-FED-AID for assistance.
Check the schools listed on the “School Section" of the SAR to ensure the correct schools were recorded on your application. You can always submit it to additional schools at a later date.
March Many schools begin distributing awards in March. You should receive a package of information from the school's financial aid office that details the financial aid programs and dollar amounts of your financial aid award.
Follow the instructions and be sure to meet any deadlines for accepting your financial aid award.
Remember, financial aid rarely meets all the costs of tuition and fees; to make up any gaps between federal and institutional financial aid, you may need a private student loan.
April Remember to file your IRS 1040. Even though it's not strictly financial aid-related, any tax penalties or taxes owed can wreak havoc on financial aid the following year, so be sure to stay on the good side of the IRS by filing a tax return.
May Students who are graduating should immediately file for student loan consolidation. Students still enrolled in school for another year or more should continue searching for aid, scholarships, and grants throughout the summertime.
For students who are studying abroad, May is the right time to acquire a study abroad loan. Those studying during summer semesters will need to have financial aid in order for Summer Semester I.
June Jobs and travel often occupy the calendars of students during the summer. Remember that any income you make as a student can potentially impact your financial aid for the following year, so it may be worthwhile investigating internships or volunteer work to build experience.
July For students taking summer courses, July is usually the beginning of Summer Semester II; be sure you have your financial aid in order.
August First time Stafford Federal Student Loan borrowers often have to fulfill an Entrance Counseling session - and many schools provide these sessions over the Internet. Check with your school.
Double check on any outside financial aid or scholarships you may be receiving.
Make sure any loans you're applying for are in progress and moving towards disbursement to your school. Keep in touch with your financial aid office to verify that your award package is in place.
September School is beginning - make sure that all your loans are in process or disbursed, as the bills won't be far behind. If you find yourself confronted with a spate of unexpected expenses or shortfalls in aid, apply for an alternative student loan, since you can usually obtain alternative student loans in a much shorter period of time than federal student loans.
October/November Students who have graduated and not consolidated their student loans will be approaching the end of their grace periods. Remember, the repayment rate for Stafford Loans is 0.6% higher than the grace period rate, so consolidating your loans can save you more than half a percent on your interest rate.
December Gather up your tax receipts, pay stubs, etc. and fill out an estimated IRS 1040 so that you can file your FAFSA as soon as the doors open on January 1!
Christopher S. Penn is the producer and creator of the Financial Aid Podcast, a daily free Internet radio show about making college affordable, as well as Chief Technology Officer of the Student Loan Network This organization offers federal student loans and student loan consolidation for college students, both undergraduate and graduate. His work has been featured in several books, newspapers, and conferences.