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Paying for College: Timeline

Applying for financial aid can connect you with immense resources for higher education. Though the forms are long and detailed, it is important to fill them out meticulously and submit them as early as possible.

The following timeline provides a rough overview of the financial aid application process. This is meant as an overview rather than a complete guide. We recommend that you seek additional information by talking with your guidance counselor and carefully reading publications from college financial aid offices.

We also recommend that you begin by reading our article on understanding financial aid. This document will give you a basic understanding of how things work.

Senior Year


  • Create a schedule of admissions and financial aid deadlines, which may be different for each school to which you are applying. You can usually find this information on college websites in the section dedicated to admissions and financial aid.
  • Attend a financial aid event to learn more about affordable ways you can pay for college.



  • Submit your early application if you are applying early action or early decision to a college.
  • Fill out CSS Profile if applying early decision/early action.


  • Submit regular college applications with deadlines in December.
  • Find out whether the colleges you are applying to require forms other than the FAFSA. Many require the CSS Profile, which you can access from the College Board web site. Some colleges may also ask you to submit university- or state-specific forms for different aid programs. Be sure to note any associated deadlines.

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  • Obtain copies of last year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and use it to find out what information you will need to submit. You can either ask your guidance counselor if he or she has paper copies, or view the form online. You should also preview the CSS Profile form and the worksheets the College Board provides. (You can view the CSS Profile without paying, but you must pay to submit it.)
  • Begin gathering information with the help of your parent(s) or guardian(s). Information you will need may include social security numbers, tax statements from the previous year, bank statements, pension information, and other financial documents.
    • The CSS Profile will ask you to report many different types of assets. This includes the balance of your personal bank account. Most colleges will expect you to contribute any money you have saved towards your college education; however, they will not expect you to contribute non-cash assets used for your education, such as a personal computer.
  • As deadlines require, submit applications for any private or outside scholarships you have identified.
  • Apply for or keep in mind of the additional scholarships offered by the colleges to which you have applied.


  • Submit regular college applications with deadlines in January.
  • The FAFSA for the current year becomes available January 1st. Obtain a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from your school counselor or through the Department of Education Website.

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  • Complete your FAFSA. You will need your family’s (estimated) income tax information for the previous year. Note that submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible can benefit you because more federal aid may be available early in the season. Therefore, if your parents have not yet completed their income tax forms, you and your parents should use your best estimates to apply for aid. You will need to edit your FAFSA as soon as your parents file their taxes.
    • If your parents are divorced or separated, you should only use your custodial parent’s information to fill out the FAFSA. You should do the same on most of the CSS Profile; the exception is the Non-Custodial Parent Form. Many colleges ask students with divorced or separated parents to submit this supplemental form.
  • If you intend to mail in a paper copy of the FAFSA rather than apply online, be sure to make a photocopy before you send it. You may need to refer to this document in the future.
  • Notify the school's financial aid office of any special circumstances, such as unemployment or medical expenses, which could affect your family's ability to pay for college. You want the financial aid office to consider all of these factors when determining your financial aid award even though they are not included in the forms.


  • As deadlines require, submit applications for any private or outside scholarships you have identified.
  • Be sure that you have submitted all required forms: the FAFSA, any private scholarship applications, the CSS Profile, and any state or campus forms required for specific financial aid programs. Completing your application early may be to your advantage.


  • Watch the mail for your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is the Department of Education’s reply to your submitted FAFSA and summarizes your financial aid eligibility for any federal programs. The report often asks for corrections to your FAFSA, which you should submit promptly by mail or online.


  • Receive admissions decisions from colleges.
  • Receive financial aid offers and determine how much each college would cost you and your family, given your financial aid award. During this important decision-making period, college financial aid officers are available to counsel students and families. Call them if you have questions.

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  • Make a final enrollment decision and submit the enrollment deposit, if requested.
  • Decline the admission offers of all the schools you will not be attending.
  • Sign and return financial aid forms for the school you will be attending.
    • Schools may ask for additional financial documents at this time, such as copies of your parents’ tax forms.


  • Send your final transcript to the college you will be attending.
  • If you will be applying for student loans, send loan applications to your chosen college. Low-income students often have financial aid packages composed primarily of grants. If you do have loans, a large portion will likely be federally subsidized, low-interest loans.
  • Remain in communication with the college’s financial aid office to check on the status of your financial aid application, and make sure you have submitted all the necessary materials.


  • Complete any remaining financial aid forms.
  • Send thank you notes to the financial aid office of the college you will be attending.
  • Consider applying for a summer job.

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Preparing for College
Applying for College
Paying for College


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