Can you get a great aid offer by crossing your fingers? Probably not, but you can take steps to improve your chances. Before you tackle your financial aid applications, consider what you can do to improve your eligibility for the best kind of aid
Be an excellent student in high school (and college)
Applying to colleges where you stand out academically can pay off. Students whose grades and scores put them within the top fourth of the current freshman class are more likely to get better awards. These students need to keep up the good work in college. Some aid requires the student to earn a minimum GPA each year of college.
Find colleges that are generous with aid
Research the financial aid track record of colleges. Look at their history of meeting financial need and offering cost-reducing need-based gift aid and merit aid. Also look up the aid offered after freshman year for signs of "front-loading," when gift aid amounts shrink after the first year of college. (View this data in any CollegeData College Profile.)
Anticipate the aid formulas the colleges will use
Most colleges calculate aid with a government formula, using information provided by the family in their FAFSA. But about 260 mostly private colleges also use the PROFILE aid application to allocate their own aid. The PROFILE formula dives deeper into a family's financial picture. For example, the FAFSA does not count home equity, but many PROFILE colleges do.
Get smart about college savings
529 savings accounts are designed for college saving. If they are owned by the parent or student, aid formulas will assess them at a lower rate than other assets. Other savers, such as grandparents, should wait to provide college money until the student's last aid application has been filed. Otherwise the money given to the student (or given to the college for the benefit of the student) will be counted as student income and assessed at 50 percent.
Reduce parental assets
Colleges expect parents to use from 5 to 5.64 percent of their assets to pay for college. (A portion of assets is protected by the FAFSA formula.) Parents can reduce assets by paying off consumer debt or making major purchases.
Reduce money belonging to the student
Colleges expect the student to use substantial portions of his or her income and assets to pay for college. Consider spending down student savings and assets on items needed for college, such as a computer. Or place that money in a 529 savings account, where colleges using the government formula will assess it at the lower parent rate.
Apply for aid well before the deadline
Submit your aid applications sooner than later since cost-reducing aid (grants and scholarships) is often allocated well before the official financial aid application deadline.
Know when and how to appeal aid awards
Some financial circumstances are temporary or change after an aid application has been submitted. For example, a parent might have received a one-time bonus. Or a job might have been lost. You can file an aid appeal successfully if you have a good reason. You can also show the college a better offer from another college and ask for reconsideration of your aid package.
Note: Financial information provided on this site is of a general nature and may not apply to your situation. Contact a financial or tax advisor before acting on such information.