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As high school seniors are busy completing college applications, many parents are tackling another part of the college admissions process: applying for financial aid.  The financial aid forms can be time-consuming and confusing, and some people might feel like they need an advanced degree to sort them out.

Just the number of financial aid forms and requirements can seem overwhelming.  Almost all colleges require the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  As its name would suggest, submitting the FAFSA is completely free.  Some colleges (mostly private schools) also require the CSS Profile, and families have to pay a fee for each college to which they submit this form.  Finally, some schools (again, mostly private ones) require the parents’ and student’s tax returns and/or W-2’s.

Some families skip the financial aid process altogether, having decided they make too much money to qualify for aid.  However, under certain circumstances, not completing the financial aid forms is a mistake, no matter what your income is.  Some colleges, such as the University of Virginia, Penn State, Santa Clara University, and New York University, require applicants to submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and/or the CSS Profile to be considered for merit scholarships.  So, as you’re investigating the merit scholarship process at the colleges to which you’re applying, be sure to see if you need to apply for financial aid as well.

According to Jay Murray, financial advisor and President of Solutions for Tuition, LLC, some colleges will force families to take a financial aid gap year if they didn’t apply for aid in previous years.  Therefore, even if a family doesn’t think they’ll qualify for aid, he advises them to go ahead and apply in case their financial situation changes and they want to apply for aid the following year.

Jay also explained that some colleges will not negotiate merit scholarships if a family has not submitted the required financial aid forms.

Therefore, before you decide not to apply for aid, it’s best to consider all of the above.  And, if you’re struggling with the financial aid forms, know that help is available.  You can get free assistance with the FAFSA on its website or by calling 800-433-3243.  For support with the CSS Profile, visit its website or call 844-202-0524.  Finally, don’t hesitate to contact a college’s financial aid office if you have specific questions about the school’s financial aid process.

In addition to checking each college’s financial aid requirements, be sure to check its deadlines for submitting all forms and required documents.  Often, the sooner you submit the forms, the better, as many colleges award aid on a rolling basis.