Anyone even vaguely familiar with the college application process has seen, heard, or spoken the famous financial aid acronym, FAFSA (for Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
Many private colleges and universities also require you to complete the "CSS Profile," a form from the College Scholarship Service, an offshoot of the College Board, the nice folks who bring you the SATs. This form, which you can access online at CollegeBoard.com, provides schools additional information not available on the FAFSA; these colleges use the CSS Profile to make decisions about the award of aid from their own funds. If your parents own a business or a farm, they may have to complete a business/farm supplement, and if your parents are divorced or separated, your noncustodial parent will also be required to fill out a Divorced/Separated Parents Form as a supplement to your CSS Profile.
In addition to all those forms, some colleges and universities will then require you to fill out yet another application specific to that institution. Usually your filing a FAFSA or a CSS Profile with a school will trigger them to send you this form, but in the bureaucratic crush of admissions season, oversights can and do occur, so it is advisable to phone the financial aid office of each college to which you are applying to ensure that you have all the necessary paperwork to complete your financial aid application.
Plan to file your personal income tax return early in the year you apply to schools in order to make filling out your FAFSA easier, as you will need your total income figures to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) on the FAFSA form. The EFC is the amount of money an individual and his or her family are "expected" to be able to contribute to the individual's education in a given year. This figure is calculated even if your parents have no intention of contributing anything to your tuition. Schools typically expect a contribution of 35 percent of a student's assets toward tuition and room and board, but only an average of around 6 percent of parents' total assets. Accordingly, as you approach college age, it is generally to your benefit to minimize the assets held in your name, because doing so will reduce your EFC and could increase the amount of financial aid for which you will qualify. Your parents should schedule a meeting with their accountant to determine the best strategy to employ to maximize your chances of receiving financial aid.
Most state schools use the "federal methodology" in determining an individual's eligibility for financial aid. This method bases its estimate of your EFC, and ultimately the amount of reduced-interest aid you qualify for, on your statement of personal income, assets, and financial liabilities. Private universities, by contrast, also use the "institutional methodology" to evaluate financial aid eligibility for funds under the school's direct control (unsubsidized loans, grants, and scholarships). Be prepared to complete additional profile forms if you are applying to private colleges and universities.
Many students mistakenly assume that if their parents are not going to be contributing to their tuition, they do not need to fill out these additional profile forms. This is incorrect! Failing to complete all financial aid forms sent to you will result in your financial aid application's remaining incomplete and your being disqualified from receiving any aid award.