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    Countdown to College Cash

    Use this handy schedule to help you keep tabs on financial aid deadlines, scholarship due dates and everything in between.

    When it comes to paying for college, money isn't all that matters. Timing is also key. Use this handy schedule to help you keep tabs on financial aid deadlines, scholarship due dates and everything in between.

    Freshman, Sophomore and Junior Years

    • Work hard to improve your GPA, and take the ACT and/or SAT at least once by spring of your junior year.

    • Keep track of all your activities, so you'll have a record when it's time to fill out applications.

    • Get a part-time job and start saving toward your education.

    Senior Year: Fall

    • Keep your grades up!

    • Retake the ACT and/or SAT if you think you could improve your scores.

    • Meet with your guidance counselor to find out what kind of financial assistance you might be eligible to receive. Also, be sure to check with him or her regularly to pick up scholarship applications. You'll be surprised at all the awards out there.

    • Grab a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which you'll use to apply for federal, state and individual college aid. Once the FAFSA is processed, you'll see what your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be. The EFC is the amount of money you and your parents will be expected to pay for college.

    • Talk to the folks at the colleges you're interested in to see if they require additional financial aid forms.

    Senior Year: Winter

    • Complete the FAFSA and send it in as soon after Jan. 1 as possible. You'll need copies of your latest tax return (if you filled one out) and your parents' latest return, or at least an estimate of those figures.

    • If the colleges you're interested in require additional forms, be sure to get those in on time.

    • Photocopy all of your forms before sending them in.

    • Watch your mailbox for your Student Aid Report (SAR), which should arrive a few weeks after you file your FAFSA. This is your opportunity to make corrections to your original figures (especially if they were estimates) and get an idea of how much money your family will have to contribute for college.

    • If you do update your information, be sure to send it on to the FAFSA folks. Some colleges will even file these changes for you. Ask the schools you're considering if they provide this service.

    • If you don't receive your SAR within four weeks of filing your FAFSA, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (319) 337-5665 and ask about your report. Or write: Federal Student Aid Information Center, P.O. Box 84, Washington, D.C. 20044.

    • Contact the financial aid offices at colleges you're considering to find out about grants, loans and work-study opportunities.

    • Keep your eyes peeled for scholarships. You might be eligible for awards from the colleges you're considering, based on academics, athletic ability or leadership potential. Don't give up on outside scholarships. Keep asking your guidance counselor for information.

    Senior Year: Spring

    • Make friends with your mailbox. By mid-March or early April, you should receive award notices from your colleges, telling you what kinds of aid you'll get, how much you've been awarded, where it will all come from, and what your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be.

    • Prayerfully decide which college you'll attend. When you've chosen one, send in the original Student Aid Report to that school's financial aid office (if they require it). Be sure to keep a copy for yourself.

    • Congratulations! All your hard work will really pay off.

    Thanks to Donna Peltz, Director of Financial Aid at Wheaton (Ill.) College, who helped with this article.