How to Apply for Financial Aid for College

How to Apply for Financial Aid for College

How to Apply for Financial Aid for College

Published September 30, 2021 | Last Updated December 26th, 2023 at 07:02 pm

How to Apply for Financial Aid for College

by Kalman A. Chany, author, The Princeton Review’s Paying for College.

The financial aid application process can seem overwhelming. There is all this new and confusing jargon to absorb. And unfortunately, there is little or no prior experience that will prepare you for how to apply for financial aid for college. But there is no need to panic and the multi-step approach that follows will help you regardless of the college(s) involved. 

There are five basic steps involved in applying for financial aid for the 2024-2025 school year.  (Note: these procedures may well change if applying for aid in future academic years.)

1. Decide which forms you need to complete. 

Each college sets their own financial aid filing requirements. As a minimum, you will have to complete the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The online 2024-2025 version will be available electronically at by December 31, 2023. 

Depending on the colleges involved and your situation, you may also have to complete and submit the College Board’s significantly more detailed CSS Financial Aid Profile Application (or CSS PROFILE®) which a few hundred colleges (mostly the more selective private ones as well as a handful of flagship state universities) use to award their own aid funds. Some private scholarship programs may require the CSS Profile as well. 

Depending on your state of residence, you may also need to complete a separate form or forms to be considered for state aid (if the FAFSA is not sufficient). And depending on the schools involved, you may also need to complete one or more of their institutional aid applications and/or a Business/Farm Supplement if you are self-employed or own a partnership, corporation, or farm.  

Some colleges may require that a noncustodial parent submit a separate financial aid form providing their own financial data. If you will have more than one family member in college at the same time, you will have to file separate forms for each student. Note: the online version of the FAFSA will initially allow one to send the processed results to up to 10 schools; the paper PDF version will only allow one to initially list four schools.

Regardless of the way you file the FAFSA, there is no processing fee to submit the FAFSA form. The CSS Profile filing fee is based in part on the number of schools, unless you qualify for a fee waiver.

FAFSA vs. CSS Profile

The FAFSA and the CSS Profile are both standardized forms that are submitted to a processor. But they are not mutually exclusive forms.

The FAFSA form is always used to determine your eligibility for federal aid. But it may also be used to determine eligibility for institutional aid from the college itself. However, if the college also requires the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA, then the CSS Profile will be the application that determines eligibility for the school’s own funds which depending on your situation can dwarf the amount of federal aid offered. And while both forms will ask questions about your Prior-Prior-Year (PPY) income, which for the 2024-2025 academic year’s versions of both forms will be the calendar year 2022 income, the CSS Profile will also ask some additional questions about your prior-year 2023 income and possibly some questions about your 2024 income.  

2. Know your financial aid deadlines. 

You should not wait to be accepted to apply for aid. Deadlines vary tremendously. Be aware that very few schools still award aid funds on a first-come-first-served basis, but a few still do. So check the deadlines for each and every school under consideration by visiting the financial aid office website for each college under consideration. 

Most colleges will set a priority filing deadline to receive maximum consideration for aid; the school may well have different aid deadlines for early decision/early action applicants, regular decision applicants, currently enrolled students, and transfer applicants. 

Additionally, you will want to check the deadline(s) for your home state’s aid programs. While the majority of states set their own priority filing deadline, a little more than a dozen state governments award their own state aid on a first-come-first-served basis until the funds are exhausted. Your home state higher education assistance agency’s website will provide all the details, though it is also advisable to consult the state aid filing information in the FAFSA instructions and/or the high school guidance counselor.  

Be aware that a few states may permit you to take state aid funds outside of your home state, though the list of other states where you can take those state aid funds is often limited and the award amount may be less than the in-state amount.

3.  Determine the optimal time to file the aid forms. 

Ideally, if you are seeking aid for the 2024-2025 award year you will want to file the aid forms when you will demonstrate the most need between the time the filing period begins on 

October 1, 2021 and your earliest priority filing deadline. However, if you are considering one of the rare colleges that still awards aid on a first come – first served basis and/or your home state awards aid funds on a first come – first served basis, then you will want to apply for aid as soon after September 30, 2022 as possible.  

If you already filed your 2022 IRS 1040 tax return, then skip Step 4 and go to Step 5. However,  if you are reading this article and have not yet filed your 2022 return, and your optimal time to file the FAFSA is prior to the time your IRS 1040 return will be completed, then proceed with Step 4.

4.  Estimate your PPP income if necessary. 

If you are in the rare situation that your prior-prior year (2022) tax return is not yet completed by your optimal time to file financial aid forms, it is perfectly acceptable to submit estimated PPY income figures on the aid forms (and then revise the estimated PPY income items on the aid forms at a later date using the actual PPY tax return data).  

5. Gather together the appropriate records and complete all the necessary forms by the deadlines. 

The colleges assume that it is your responsibility to make sure you complete and submit all the required forms. They may not notify you that documents are missing or that your application is incomplete until it is too late and most of the aid is already awarded. 

It is best to use a chart to track your deadlines and completed items for each school. Since most of the family contribution for a dependent student — and therefore the aid eligibility — will be driven by the parental financial information reported on the aid forms, it is best for parents to oversee the aid process and make sure all deadlines and filing requirements are met.

If you add or delete any college from your list of schools under consideration, then be sure to make the proper edits to your deadline chart. And if you add any schools to the list after you have already filed the FAFSA, be sure to add these schools to the submitted FAFSA.  And if any added school requires the CSS Profile, be sure to add that school to the CSS Profile as well. With the CSS Profile, you may (or may not) be asked a few new questions depending on the school(s) being added to the form and will need to pay an additional $16 fee per added school (unless you were granted a fee waiver).

Following the action plan listed above will help you to ascertain what has to be done and when. By being organized and devoting some time now to better understand how to apply for financial aid for college, you hopefully will reduce your anxiety as well.

Copyright  2022 by Campus Consultants Inc.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Understanding the Student Aid Index: How FAFSA Will Now Use SAI for Your Financial Aid

Deciphering College Financial Aid: A Guide to Need-Based vs Merit-Based Financial Aid

The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Successful Financial Aid Appeal Letter (with Free Templates)




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