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5 pointers to help get financial aid for college-bound seniors

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Posted at 6:02 AM, Oct 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-23 06:02:09-04

A lot of families are financially strapped due to the pandemic. And for those who have college-bound seniors, the time is now to apply for help.

Here are the top five pointers from an expert and how one student is tackling the challenge...so you don’t waste your money.

Eva McCord is a Grosse Pointe South High School senior who’s applying online for need-based grants and merit-based scholarships.

“I was definitely intimidated by everything especially when I kind of reconciled with the fact that I had to temper some of my dreams especially because of the financial circumstances that I’m in,” she explained.

Her family’s not alone.

According to a survey by Discover Student Loans, 39% of parents who did not plan to apply for federal aid now say they will due to the pandemic.

“There’s nothing worse than, you know, loving a school and then realizing you don’t either have the money for it or they accept you and you have to reject the school. I didn’t want that for myself,” she said.

McCord started writing her college essays back in June.

Then, she filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – or FAFSA form – which became available October first of 2020.

Collegewise college advisor Eva Dodds said students like McCord are on the right track.

“Help your student apply for financial aid early -- when the pumpkins are still out,” said Dodds.

Dodds' five pointers to help get financial aid for college students?

1. Don’t waste money paying for scholarship search services

Dodds said you should never have to pay for a scholarship search.

She suggested you use FREE sites like goingmerry.com, cappex.com, and bigfuture.collegeboard.org.

2. Don’t miss college application & scholarship deadlines

The first round of deadlines is November first, 2020.

Sites like commonapp.org can help. This resource allows students to apply to multiple colleges with just one application.

But note – Dodds said merit-based scholarships are offered by the colleges themselves, so you’ll need to check each school’s website for those deadlines.

3. Apply for need-based financial aid now

Remember the FAFSA form? There’s even an app for that – called MyStudentAid -- which allows you to complete the form on your mobile device.

“Just fill out one FAFSA. They’ll put down the colleges to which they’re applying. Those colleges will receive a report from the federal government saying this is the expected family contribution for this student. Based on that, the college will then create a package for the student. That package will be made up of the federal aid, perhaps state aid, also institution-based aid – which can be both need-based and merit-based," said Dodds.

And Dodds wants parents to please note that it’s based not only on your earnings but also special circumstances such as job losses and medical expenses.

And students need to be proactive here and not drag their feet.

"You definitely should not wait until you receive your notification that you’ve been admitted because at that point some of that money has already been given or awarded to other students," Dodds explained.

4. Visit the financial aid pages of the colleges to which you’re applying

“They’re looking to see how they can help you. [There are] lots of special circumstances right now because of COVID,” said Dodds.

Also, many schools – like Michigan State University -- have a portal for each student as well as cost and financial aid calculators.

Some colleges also list what kinds of merit-based scholarships are available. For example, students can qualify for some of them with just their GPA.

5. Focus on colleges that fit your budget

No reason to apply if the cost of a college is simply not an amount you or your family can afford.

“Start the conversation with the budget, and then back into which colleges fit into that budget. And then it will be a much more pleasant process," Dodds said.

But you can get creative.

Consider living at home for a year or two instead of on campus or starting at a community college and then transfering to a four-year university.

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Eva McCord poses for her senior portrait.

Eva McCord has finished all her applications.

She’s not letting this pandemic derail her college dreams.

“Actually turning in everything and feeling secure in the fact that if you get accepted somewhere you can go, it’s like the best feeling,” she said with a big smile.

Collegewise offers a FREE resource called Runway. It just launched this month for students in grades nine through eleven to helps kids and parents navigate the college application process.

Remember, many colleges have a November 1, 2020 deadline -- including many Big Ten Schools.

Then there’s a November 15, 2020 deadline for other schools -- like the University of Michigan.

So, Class of 2021, don't be too discouraged by this pandemic if you're dreaming of college-- especially if your family faces financial challenges because of this global health crisis.

You can still access many resources…so you don’t waste your money.

Good luck!