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    Cash in on Financial Aid

    Improve your chances for aid by avoiding five common mistakes.

    by Cherissa Dees

    You've browsed through brochures, talked to admissions counselors and surfed through college websites. Finally, your student has decided on his or her dream college. And while your college student-to-be is mulling over possible majors, the one question looming in your mind is: "How are we going to pay for it?"

    Most families rely on some form of financial aid to help fund their child's college education. Applying for and receiving financial aid is a process that requires a little patience, a lot of paperwork and a substantial investment of time. If you go through the process successfully, you could end up with more financial aid than you ever thought your student would be eligible to receive.

    So how can you navigate the process successfully? Experts suggest that parents and students avoid five common mistakes:

    Mistake No. 1: Starting the Process Too Late

    It takes several months to complete the process of applying for financial aid. If you're addressing your student's high school graduation announcements and still haven't started the college financial aid process, you've waited too long!

    "Many families are intimidated by the financial aid process," says Larry Hollingsworth, director of student

    financial services at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. "That intimidation causes them to put it off, and then when reality sets in, they've missed the opportunities for financial aid that they might have received if they had started earlier."

    Most financial aid professionals recommend that families begin the financial aid process no later than the fall of their student's senior year. Once your student has decided on possible colleges and universities, contact the financial aid departments at those schools to find out what paperwork needs to be completed to apply for institutional aid (grants and scholarships funded by the school) and federal aid (grants, scholarships and loans funded by the federal government).

    And it's never too early to start hunting for scholarships. During your student's junior year in high school, start looking for independent scholarships at the community, regional and national level. Check out scholarship search sites like fastweb.com, and ask your child's high school counselor for potential scholarship sources.

    Many families just don't spend enough time looking for potential sources of financial aid, Hollingsworth says.

    "Financial aid is not going to just fall in your lap," he says. "It takes work, and parents and students need to invest time into investigating possible scholarship and grant sources."

    According to the experts, getting an early start can mean the difference of thousands of dollars in financial aid—a great return on your investment of time.

    Mistake No. 2: Forgetting the FAFSA

    Another common mistake families make is not completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form makes qualified families eligible for federal financial aid, and many universities also use the information from the FAFSA to determine which students will receive institutional aid.

    Some families assume they won't qualify for aid and don't apply at all. Others fill out parts of the FAFSA, but don't ask to be considered for all types of aid. These families are limiting their financial aid options by not seeking out every possible aid source, says Vicki Rekow, director of student financial services at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington.

    "The FAFSA is critical in the financial aid process," says Rekow. "It's really important for students to submit it, and to do so on time. There's always a limited amount of institutional aid available, and, for the most part, it is going to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis."

    The FAFSA should be completed during the spring of your student's senior year in high school. If you want to get a head start on the financial aid process, you can fill out the FAFSA pre-application worksheet at fafsa.ed.gov/worksheet.htm. This practice form can help students and parents become familiar with the types of questions as well as the required information and financial documents the family will need to complete their official FAFSA.

    When completing the FAFSA, be sure to pay close attention to the directions so that you can avoid careless paperwork mistakes, such as forgetting to sign the back page of the FAFSA. A simple mistake can delay the financial aid process for weeks. If you were already pushing the deadline when you first submitted it, a mistake could cost your child scholarships or grants that you may have otherwise received. Completing and submitting your FAFSA before the deadline is a vital step toward ensuring that your student receives the most federal and institutional aid possible.

    Mistake No. 3: Overlooking Potential Scholarships

    In the midst of filling out college applications and financial aid forms, the scholarship search often takes a back seat. There are a lot of students competing for the big scholarships, and smaller scholarships may only amount to a few hundred dollars. Why invest the time and effort when there are no guarantees, and the returns may be small?

    Here's one good reason: More than $1 billion in scholarship money is available from hundreds of community organizations, civic clubs and corporations. And somebody's going to receive that money. Why not your student?

    Another reason: The potential returns for a small investment of time are pretty amazing. Let's say you and your student spend an hour searching the Internet for scholarships. You find 10 that your student is eligible for, and they all have similar application requirements. So your student spends two hours preparing the essays and other materials for the first application, then another hour making photocopies for the remaining nine applications. If your child receives just one scholarship worth $200, for four hours of work your effort has been compensated at $50 per hour—a pretty decent "wage"!

    But before your child can apply for private scholarships, you've got to know where to look for them. The Internet offers a wealth of free scholarship search sites that can be a great resource, especially when looking for national scholarships. (For more information about scholarship sources online, see "Find It Online," page 10.) To find out about local and regional scholarships available in your community, check with your student's high school counselor, and watch your local newspapers for announcements about civic and community organizations offering scholarships.

    And here's a tip to store away for the future: There might be scholarships that your student will qualify for only after they've been in college for a few years. For example, if your child is majoring in nursing, there may be scholarship money available for nursing students who have completed at least one year of college. Make it a habit to help your student look for new scholarships early each spring during the college years.

    Mistake No. 4: Staying Out of the Process

    If you're tempted to leave the financial aid process completely in the hands of your student, you might want to think again. The families who are most successful in the financial aid search are those that are closely involved in the process, says Jack Stanfill, director of student financial planning at Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky.

    "When the parents get involved, it makes the process go much more smoothly," Stanfill says. "Just like a student's involvement in a music program or an athletic team is more successful and enriching when the parents are involved, the financial aid process is going to be most successful with parental involvement."

    Most universities' financial aid offices send correspondence about financial aid directly to the prospective student. But don't let that keep you from getting involved. Ask your child to always share any information they receive via mail or e-mail. Many high school seniors are so busy with academic and extracurricular activities that they can easily miss deadlines or let important paperwork for financial aid fall through the cracks. By staying closely involved in the process with your student, you can help encourage them to follow through on important steps in the financial aid process and avoid losing potential scholarships and grants.

    Another way to get involved is to take your student for a campus visit, Stanfill says. A campus visit is a great way to find out about a university and talk one-on-one with a financial aid professional.

    Mistake No. 5: Being Afraid to Ask for Help

    With all the paperwork involved in submitting the FAFSA and other financial aid forms, parents can easily feel like they're the ones back in school, timidly trying to decide whether to raise their hands and ask questions about things they don't understand.

    "If parents or students are confused, they really need to ask for help. Sometimes families start filling out the FAFSA, don't understand part of it and submit incorrect information that may make them ineligible for certain types of aid," says Margherite Powell, director of student financial planning at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. "Parents who've never had a son or daughter in college don't know what's involved in the process. They really need to learn to ask for help from their financial aid professionals."

    You and/or your child may hear of services offering to help you fill out your FAFSA and other financial aid paperwork. Powell says that families shouldn't pay for these types of services.

    "There's no need to pay a fee for help in the financial aid process," Powell says. "Ask for help from the financial aid office at the school where your student is applying. That's what we're here to do—we want to help families get through the process smoothly."

    "It's all about communicating," she says. "It's a two-way road. Students and families have to be willing to ask questions about what they don't understand, and financial aid professionals have to be accessible to answer those questions and help the families with their individual needs."

    As you try your best to avoid these five mistakes, keep one thing in mind: God is there throughout the whole process. So don't let a mistake here and there discourage you. Just do your best and give yourself a little grace along the way. Then when your child's final aid package arrives, thank God for what's been provided and trust him to provide the rest. After all, if he generously feeds the birds and elegantly adorns the flowers, he will certainly supply your family's needs.

    Cherissa Dees recently graduated from John Brown University with a degree in journalism.