College is expensive, there’s no doubt about it. The cost of a bachelor’s degree at a state, public university could be upwards of $80,000. Since college is a big investment, the federal and state governments as well as individual colleges and career schools offer educational loans, grants, and scholarships in the form of financial aid. A loan must be paid back, usually with interest, while a grant or scholarship is awarded as a gift. Financial aid is often distributed through Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans, and Federal Work-Study jobs. Aid is offered on an as needed basis and you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form to determine if you qualify for aid.

Many questions on the FAFSA form request information about a student’s financial status. If the student is under 24 years old, parent financial information must also be reported. Answers to these questions indicate which type of aid he or she qualifies for- loans, grants, scholarships, or a combination. The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is used to determine how much tuition and living expenses, if living on campus, the student (and family) can reasonably afford. To check if you qualify for financial aid before applying, use the FAFSA4caster online tool for a free estimate of your eligibility.

FAFSA is available in a variety of formats, including online, paper, and PDF. The online form requires an FSA ID for an electronic signature, but step by step instructions are provided along the way. Applications can be submitted as early as October 1 with a deadline of March 1 if applying to Virginia colleges and universities. Since each state sets their own FAFSA deadline it’s important to check deadline dates well in advance. The sooner you submit your application, the better. If you intend to request financial aid for your first year in college, you will need to complete and submit the application senior year of high school. Aid is distributed on a yearly basis and a new application must be submitted every year for continued support.

You’ll need your most recent income tax return (or your parents) and all other financial statements pertaining to investments. Use the FAFSA on the Web worksheet as a guide when gathering everything you need to complete the application. Set aside plenty of time to sit down and complete the application.

A few days after submitting the FAFSA form you will receive an email with a link to your Student Aid Report (SAR), which summarizes the information you provided in the form. Review the report carefully to make sure it is accurate. You won’t know the exact amount of aid you qualify for until you have been accepted into a college. The school’s financial aid representative will calculate your aid based on the school’s process and procedures, then send an award letter or notify you electronically through the student portal stating the annual amount of aid you can receive while attending that school. Aid amounts will vary by school, which may impact which school you choose to attend. Factors such as when you apply for financial aid and a school’s aid application process will determine when you are notified of the exact aid amount for that school.

When you receive your award letter, keep in mind you don’t have to accept all loans, grants, and scholarships offered to you. Of course, it never hurts to accept grants and scholarships since you don’t have to pay them back. You can choose which loans to accept based on your current financial needs and comfort with the loan amount.

After accepting financial assistance, your school’s aid representative will explain how and when your aid will be allocated. If your first aid request has been approved and you are accepting a loan, you must sign a promissory note and complete entrance counseling. If you neglect to do either your financial aid can be rescinded. Before accepting aid, make sure you understand your school’s financial aid requirements.