Walking the Walk: My Financial Aid Progress So Far

By Staff

In the last few weeks, I have talked about applying for scholarships (and offered some tips and tricks that can be used in the process) and pleaded with you all to run immediately to your computers and fill out your FAFSAs. It occurred to me that these things were pretty easy to write about but that I had actually done neither in a while: a few months for the FAFSA; many years for scholarships. So, I fetched (bought actually, at my favorite coffee shop with the sparkly-eyed barista) a cup of coffee and approached my laptop, knuckles cracked and appropriately caffeinated.

I began with the FAFSA. As a returning student for the 2013-2014 school year, I was able to log in (www.FAFSA.ed.gov) using my same information from last year. It was handy that I kept my log-in information and PIN because the system was then able to autofill a large portion of my form. I, therefore, highly recommend that you all keep your FAFSA information in a safe, place as you create it or remind yourself of it. You’ll likely need for at least a couple more years.

As I went through the process, screen by screen, I was asked to input new or verify existing information pertaining largely to my income, tax status and assets. There were several screens (I believe 10, in all), each of which had to be completed and saved before I was allowed to move on to the next page. This part was a little frustrating because I didn’t know exactly what information I would need as I moved along, but it was nothing earth-shattering.

In the interest of disclosure, I have not yet filed my tax return for 2012. In fact, like most people I imagine, I do not even have most of my 1099s and W-2s, yet. So I looked at the most recent information I had (account transaction histories and YTD information on my last paystubs), along with last year’s tax returns, and guesstimated. The whole process from log-in to submission took less than half an hour. Once I file my returns, I will have to log back on to the system and update the information so that it is accurate, but my school and the federal government now have something on which to base their consideration of my award levels for 2013-14.

Scholarship Applications

Pumped with my success in the FAFSA submission realm, I plowed right into the scholarship application. Time for a little more disclosure. I am a returning student. I already have an undergraduate and a graduate degree. I am currently attending a public community college in order to sharpen some skills. Ultimately, I will just transfer these credits to my alma mater and end up with another bachelors degree. I am not exactly scholarship material. Moreover, the school is (frankly) dirt cheap. So, I am not going to go out of my way to apply (and compete with students who need them much more) for outside scholarships.

That being said, my community college does offer an all-in-one, online application to apply for all the scholarships it offers to students, including those with profiles similar to mine. Being frugal, I don’t feel too bad about throwing my hat in the ring for these scholarships so I sat down to apply. I found out about these school-sponsored scholarships through a postcard I received in the mail. The postcard told me that the application process opened up on January 2, and that the deadline was April 1. It also told me that I could apply by going to the financial aid page of the college website and clicking the “Scholarship Opportunities” link. Even with all this guidance, it took me nearly five minutes to find the link and get to the application. Once there, I was asked for more information than the FAFSA asked me for, plus I had to write two 500-word essays, which I was not prepared to do upon signing in. So I saved what I could and logged out to think about the essays.

After I came up with some good information (following my own advice from earlier posts), I logged back in. My “saved” information wasn’t there. I had to re-enter everything. Many questions asked about community service, leadership and volunteer work I had done. I then typed in my essays, which asked the following:

“Describe yourself, including what you have accomplished that makes you most proud, what you want to accomplish at Normandale, how scholarship support is important to your future, how your work and/or volunteer experiences have contributed to making you the person you are today and why you should be considered for a scholarship.”; and

“Describe a significant event in your life and how it has influenced your personal growth and professional goals.”

I felt comfortable with my answers to the questions and generally happy with the way the scholarship application went. It did, however, take almost three hours of my time, all told; which is a lot for a scholarship that I am likely not even going to get! But, once again following my own advice, I applied. I provided thoughtful, thorough answers. So, I can’t say that I didn’t do my part. We’ll just have to see.

I realize that my experience was very personalized. Yours will be, too. I think there are a few things here that you can take away and use, though. First, whether it’s the FAFSA or a scholarship, apply early. Don’t wait until the last minute: give your application early and maximum exposure before aid officers and committee members are all in a frenzied rush (or worse, funds have already been doled out). Some schools, in fact, may require a FAFSA before they look at a scholarship application. Second, the online FAFSA is not painful, especially for returning students. So just do it. Third, and perhaps most important, you may have to dig for your school’s scholarship opportunities. Even my community college, which sent out a postcard — and let’s remember, I write a blog on this subject, so I like to think I’m a little more dialed-in than your average student on issues of financial aid — did not make it easy to find the application. If your school is even less user friendly, you will have to do some leg work. Google your school’s name and “scholarship”. Call your financial aid adviser, or drop by her office and ask about scholarships. Some schools or foundations may not even have electronic applications yet. Most importantly, none of this will happen unless you do it. Contrary to popular belief, there are no financial aid fairies.