Are you ready to head to college? Remember, it isn’t all late nights in the library and frat parties—make sure you have the financial freedom to make these next four years the best they can possibly be. February is Financial Aid Awareness month, which means the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the talk of the town right now.

The FAFSA helps college students manage the costs of higher education by providing both merit-based and need-based aid. This can come in the form of loans, grants, and other financial assistance. It’s notorious for being a lengthy application to fill out, but with the right preparation, you’ll be raking in the aid in no time! Here’s what you need to know.

File Your FAFSA Early

At certain colleges, FAFSA aid is first come, first serve—which means applying early can make a big difference. The FAFSA opens for submission on October 1st and ends on March 2nd of the following year. So in order to increase your likelihood of a good financial aid offer, make sure to be ready when that application window opens.The great thing about the FAFSA is that it’s totally free and you aren’t bound to a loan simply by applying. Once you receive an offer, you can decide whether or not you want it.

Use a FAFSA Calculator to Get the Bigger Picture

Before even applying to colleges, it’s a good idea to look at the bigger picture of your financial situation. The U.S. Department of Education has a FAFSA calculator called the FAFSA4caster that estimates your eligibility for federal student aid. Just plug in some information about your tax returns and assets, and you’ll get a good idea of where you stand. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll now be apply to either apply for schools or make a final decision based on your finances.

Make an Inclusive Budget for the School Year

When filling out the FAFSA, you’ll need to estimate a total budget for the school year. Many applicants only include tuition, room and board, and meal plans. But in order to maximize your federal student aid, be sure to include costs such as textbooks, transportation, supply purchases for specific classes, and an emergency fund. College can get extremely expensive, so make sure you’re lined up to receive the most financial assistance as you can possibly get!

Negotiate Aid Packages with Colleges

Some colleges allow students to negotiate their financial aid packages. If you want to try your luck at receiving more assistance, you can typically go through an appeals process before the May 1st college acceptance deadline. Make sure to explain in detail your financial hardship and include well-reasoned points as to why you think you should be offered more aid. This could come in the form of merit-based scholarships, student work-study agreements, and other types of assistance.

Don’t Stop Looking at Grants and Scholarships

Even though you’ve filled out the FAFSA, never stop applying to grants and scholarships! Unlike loans, these forms of financial aid don’t need to be paid back. Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money go unused because students don’t apply. Writing short essays, playing a musical instrument, being good at sports, or even taking selfies can all get you free money to put toward tuition! Most students can’t rely on grants and scholarships to pay for the majority of tuition, but they do make for a good supplement to aid provided by the FAFSA.

There you have it! Are you ready to tackle the FAFSA and make smart money moves to start off your college career? If they gave out grades for the FAFSA application process, we know you’d get straight A’s.

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