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8 financial aid tips for first-generation college students

Reaching out to other students who've been in your shoes can help you navigate the process.

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If you’re the first of your family to attend college, you’re eligible for just as much financial aid as other students — and sometimes even more thanks to special scholarship programs. But many first-generation students don’t receive as much aid as they should. Using the resources available to you can help you explore your options and feel less overwhelmed when navigating the financial aid process.

1. Rely on your guidance counselor or college adviser

Set up an appointment with your guidance counselor or college adviser your junior year of high school to get an overview of the college application and financial aid process. It’s their job to help you find information about schools you’re interested in, as well as scholarships and grants available to you. Check in with them throughout the application process with any questions or concerns you might have.

2. Learn the jargon

Researching college financial aid programs can be particularly overwhelming if it feels like you’re reading another language. It might help to keep a list of unfamiliar words on your phone that you can refer back to as needed. The Federal Student Aid website has an extensive glossary of student loan-related terms.

Here are a few common terms you should know before getting started:

  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is an application for loans, grants and work-study programs offered by the US Department of Education. You also need to fill out the FAFSA to be considered for several other types of in-school financial aid.
  • College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. A separate financial aid application for non-federal financial aid, such as scholarships and grants offered directly by a school. You often need to fill out the CSS Profile and FAFSA to get the most generous financial aid package.
  • Cost of attendance (COA). An estimate of how much it costs to go to a school, including the cost of textbooks, transportation and other miscellaneous personal expenses. How much financial aid you’re eligible to receive depends on the COA, rather than just tuition and fees.
  • Expected family contribution (EFC). How much your family is expected to pay for a semester of college. Some schools have their own formula for calculating how much your family can afford to pay, while others rely on the FAFSA.
  • Federal Student Aid (FSA). The branch of the Department of Education that handles federal student loans, grants and work-study.
  • FSA ID. Your login credentials to access your FAFSA application and anything else related to your federal aid, such as information on where to repay your federal student loans.

3. Go to financial aid seminars with your family

Many high schools, colleges and community centers offer workshops and seminars to help guide you through the financial aid process. You might be able to find some by talking to your guidance counselor or college adviser. Or search online for seminars in your area.

Go to a few to get a general gist of what’s out there and more tips for applying for aid. And bring a parent or guardian — looping them in can make it easier to navigate applications that require information about their finances.

4. Know your deadlines — and when applications open

Submitting your college application, FAFSA and other financial aid forms by the deadline is essential to getting any financial aid. But knowing when applications open is also key, since many programs offer aid on a first-come, first-served basis. Submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible after it’s available on October 1st is essential for a wide range of financial aid opportunities — even scholarships and grants offered by outside organizations.

5. Apply for federal aid

Federal aid is a key part of most financial aid packages. In fact, many require you to fill out the FAFSA, even if you think you might not qualify. That’s because schools and scholarship funds often rely on information from your FAFSA application — such as your EFC — when calculating how much additional aid you can qualify for.

5 tips to fill out the FAFSA as a first-generation student

While filling out the FAFSA has gotten more user friendly since moving online, it can be difficult to navigate if you’re on your own. Here are some tips to stay on top of the process:

  1. Start as soon as possible. This point bears repeating: Submit your FAFSA as soon as you can after it opens on October 1st. The sooner you submit it, the more likely you are to get a generous financial aid package with gift aid — that’s scholarships, grants and other funds you don’t have to repay.
  2. Gather all required documents first. Check out the complete list of FAFSA questions to make sure you have all of the required documents on hand before getting started.
  3. Take advantage of the IRS data retrieval tool. The FAFSA has a tool that allows it to access your family’s tax information and auto-complete parts of the form. It’ll save you not only time but the headache of going through and interpreting past tax returns.
  4. Apply with your parents. The FAFSA requires a lot of information about your parents or guardians — having them there with you can speed up the process.
  5. Get assistance from your school and helplines. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your guidance counselor, your prospective school’s financial aid office or the FSA helpline at 800-433-3243 for assistance.

A step-by-step guide to filling out the FAFSA — with pictures

6. Apply for outside scholarships and grants

Unless you get a full ride, you might want to apply to scholarships and grants from outside organizations as well. These can cut down on how much student debt you need to take on to finish your degree. Many organizations even have scholarships specifically for first-generation students. Reach out to your prospective school’s financial aid office as well as your college adviser or guidance counselor for help with your search.

7. Look into interest-free loans

While federal loans tend to have lower rates and more flexibility than private student loans, interest-free student loans are the cheapest. These are typically offered by nonprofits based on financial need and work similar to a scholarship that you have to pay back. There’s usually an essay component to the application, and you might not get enough funds to cover your EFC. But they can reduce how much interest-bearing student debt you need to take on.

Where to find interest-free student loans

8. Reach out to other first-generation students

Nobody knows what your experience will be like more than other first-generation college students. After you have an idea of which schools you’re interested in attending, reach out to students who are already there to ask about their experience and get tips on applying. You can often do this through the admissions office, though some schools also have Facebook groups where first-generation students can meet online and share information.

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Bottom line

You might not be able to rely on your family for much help if you’re the first one to go to college. But there are other resources available to you. Reaching out to your high school guidance counselor and other students who’ve been in your shoes can help you navigate the financial aid process.

You can get an overview of how student aid works by reading our guide to student loans.

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