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Savings & Spending

Top 10 Things to Remember When Applying for Financial Aid

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A big part of your college decision is based on how you'll pay for it. North Carolinians are lucky. Our state offers a wide choice of colleges and over $600 million in state scholarships and grants to help pay for them.

1. Do your homework in advance

Get information about the cost of the colleges and universities you are considering at You can also learn about the process of applying for financial aid and the scholarships, grants, and loans available to help pay for your education. Visit the College Foundation of North Carolina website or call toll free 866-866-CFNC for any questions you have about college costs.

2. Check for deadlines

Some scholarships may require an application. Don’t miss out on an opportunity because you failed to return an application on time. If you don’t have exact information (like completed tax information), estimate so you don’t miss a deadline. Make copies of documents for your records.

3. Fill out and submit the free application for FAFSA

Ideally, this is completed as soon after October 1 of your senior year as possible. Don’t think you’ll qualify for financial aid? You may be surprised. One thing is sure: if you don’t fill out a FAFSA, you won’t qualify. The results of your FAFSA are the only "application" needed for many federal and state scholarships and grants. File early to be considered for all available aid. Don’t wait until after you hear about admission. Start your FAFSA form now or visit the College Foundation of North Carolina website. Completing the FAFSA means you are considered for federal student aid and specifically NC state aid at any NC community college, NC independent college, or one of the UNC institutions.

The Department of Education uses a standard formula in processing your FAFSA to determine how much you and your family should be able to contribute to your education. The amount is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The difference between college costs and your EFC is your “financial need.”

4. Apply for your electronic signature & PIN number before you file

Doing so will speed up the FAFSA processing. Filing online takes much less time when you already have an FSA ID, which serves as your electronic signature. If you are a dependent student, your parent should also apply for an FSA ID. You can both apply for an FSA ID through the Federal Student Aid website.

5. Locate FAFSA assistance

CFNC offers FAFSA assistance in a couple of ways including local assistance at a college campus and through a series of videos available on demand. To find a location and register for an appointment, visit College Foundation of North Carolina’s FAFSA Assistance page. You do not have to be attending the college to receive assistance at that campus. The series of videos that break down the FAFSA into sections is available at the same webpage.

The Federal Student Aid Information Center (office of the U.S. Department of Education) offers assistance through live chat, phone, and email. Visit their help center for more information.

6. Contact the financial aid office at the colleges to which you are applying

Other financial aid forms may be required by individual colleges or universities for institutional money they may have available. They might include institution-based applications for need-based aid, College Scholarship Service PROFILE applications, and specific college merit scholarship applications (often with fall deadlines, so apply early). The financial aid office can also help you consider other sources of financial aid and help you understand the process and timing.

7. Check with your high school counselor

There are scholarship applications from numerous independent sources, such as foundations, clubs, and companies that may be available in your local area. There are also helpful links to find more information on outside scholarships at

8. Receive a "financial aid package" from colleges

After you are accepted by a college, if you have indicated your interest in financial aid and filled out a FAFSA, you will receive an award letter that indicates any aid for which you have qualified. Financial aid packages generally include a combination of gift (money that does not need to be repaid in the form of scholarship and grants) and self-help (work-study and education loans). Some colleges are able to meet your full demonstrated need, but some cannot.

9. Compare financial aid packages from different colleges

If you have several financial aid packages from different colleges to compare, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Can I afford to attend my first-choice college or university?
  • Is there a commitment from the financial aid office to continue the aid after my first year of college? Under what terms and conditions? What must I do to continue receiving aid (application deadlines, grade averages, etc.)?
  • Is the amount of loan and / or work a reasonable amount? Can I afford the monthly payments on loans after graduation?
  • Are there any changes in my family’s financial situation that the college doesn’t know that might merit reconsideration?

10. Pick your financial aid carefully

Use as much "gift" money as you can first. Scholarships and grants that you don’t have to pay back are a real benefit. Next, apply for federal student and parent loans. These are generally lower cost than private loans and, when you borrow using a Direct Loan from the U.S. Department of Education, you’re likely to save money. Federal student loans generally offer more flexible repayment options. If you still need more money for college, then you might look at a supplemental private or alternative loan. Borrow only what you really need. Don’t get excited about "easy" money. It's hard to pay it back. More information and applications may be found at