How to Apply for Financial Aid for College

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Mark Kantrowitz

By Mark Kantrowitz

July 13, 2021

Financial aid can be complicated, but the steps you need to take to apply for financial aid are simple. File the FAFSA and, if necessary, the CSS Profile. File these forms every year, even if you got nothing other than loans last year. Also, search and apply for scholarships. The only way to get financial aid is to apply.

There are two main types of financial aid, need-based financial aid and merit scholarships.

  • Need-based aid depends on financial need, the difference between college costs and your ability to pay for college. Your ability to pay for college is measured by financial aid application forms.
  • Merit scholarships are awarded based on your unique skills and talents, not just your grades and test scores. For example, you can win a $10,000 scholarship for making a prom costume out of duct tape. (No kidding! Visit for more information.)

How to Apply for Need-Based Financial Aid

To apply for need-based financial aid, file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. The FAFSA is used to apply for financial aid from the federal and state governments, as well as most colleges and universities. The information entered on your FAFSA determines your financial aid eligibility. 

  • You will need an FSA ID, which you can get at, to electronically sign the FAFSA.
  • Then, file the FAFSA online at
  • The FAFSA is a free form. You do not need to pay anybody to file the FAFSA.

About 200 mostly private colleges use a supplemental form called the CSS Profile for awarding their own financial aid funds. These colleges must still use the FAFSA for federal and state aid.

  • File the CSS Profile online at
  • The CSS Profile costs $25 for the form and first college, plus $16 for each additional college. Automatic fee waivers may be available to low-income students.

It is best to file the FAFSA and CSS Profile as soon as possible on or after October 1. Students who apply for financial aid sooner tend to get more grants than students who apply later. More than a dozen states award state grants on a first-come, first-served basis, until the money runs out. Some colleges also have very early deadlines.

Gather the documentation you’ll need to file the FAFSA in advance. Read a few tips on how to get more financial aid by tweaking your income, assets and demographics.

Students must list at least one college on the FAFSA and they can list up to 10 colleges at a time. You don’t have to be admitted to these colleges to list them on the FAFSA. You can change your mind later about the colleges you are considering. It is best to list an in-state public college first on the FAFSA, to ensure that your application is considered for state aid.

IRS Data Retrieval Tool

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA to transfer income and tax information from your federal income tax return to the FAFSA. This will simplify the FAFSA application, letting you skip some questions. It will also reduce the chances that your FAFSA is selected for verification, saving you time and hassle.

Student Aid Report

After you file the FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). Correct any errors in the SAR. The SAR includes your expected family contribution (EFC), which is a measure of your family’s financial strength. Financial aid eligibility is based on the EFC. After you receive the financial aid award letter from each college, consider appealing for more financial aid if your ability to pay for college is affected by special circumstances, such as a change in family income.

Remember that need-based financial aid may include federal student loans, which have to be paid back with interest. 

How to Apply for Merit Scholarships

Start searching for scholarships as soon as possible. The sooner you start searching for scholarships, the fewer deadlines you will miss.

  • There are scholarships you can win in younger grades, not just during your senior year in high school.
  • Some scholarships have deadlines in the fall, not just during the spring.
  • Continue searching for scholarships even after you enroll in college, as there are some scholarships that are open only to current college students.

Search for scholarships on free scholarship matching sites. The best scholarship databases are free.

  • Don’t pay a fee to search for scholarships or to apply for scholarships.
  • If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam.

To increase your chances of winning a scholarship, apply to every scholarship for which you are eligible.

Ask Questions

If you have questions about how to apply for financial aid and filing the FAFSA, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). This is a free hotline sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Hearing impaired people can reach them by TTY at 1-800-730-8913.

For questions about the CSS Profile form, call 1-866-881-1167.

A good place to start:

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