How to apply for civilian financial aid

There are several steps in the civilian financial aid application process

Here are the steps to apply for federal financial aid. The information you provide in this process may also be used by states and schools in deciding whether to offer you financial aid.

Please note: The information listed here details how to apply for financial aid as a civilian. If you want to apply for military education benefits, check with the education office on your base or post.

1. Get an application
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) uses to evaluate the family financial situation of every student who applies for financial aid. Schools often use information from the FAFSA to award state and institutional financial aid.

Most college financial aid offices can provide you with a paper copy of the application, but to speed up the process complete the FAFSA online (fafsa.ed.gov) on the Federal Student Aid website.

If you want civilian financial aid (grants, federal work-study, loans), completing the FAFSA is a must.

2. Fill out the application
You can fill out a paper FAFSA application or apply online (fafsa.ed.gov) on the Federal Student Aid website. Filling it out usually takes some time and effort.

3. Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
Using the information on your FAFSA application, ED determines how much you can afford to pay for your education. This is called the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Based on your EFC and the cost of the school you plan to attend, they determine your eligibility for federal aid and loan programs.

4. Your Student Aid Report (SAR)
After ED determines your EFC, they either email or mail you a Student Aid Report, or SAR. Review the SAR carefully to confirm your information is correct. If it’s not, make any needed corrections. ED will send your SAR data electronically to the educational institutions you listed on your FAFSA. This document is called your Institutional Student Information Record, or ISIR.

5. Compare financial aid packages
Every school has one or more financial aid officers whose job is to determine what aid you qualify for. Each school that accepts you for admission will mail (or email) you a letter that lists how much of each type of financial aid you’re eligible to receive. This list is called a financial aid package and may include federal loans, state loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. Review and compare the financial aid packages you receive, and pick the school you want to attend.

6. Accept or decline each offer of aid
After you pick the school you want to attend, sign the financial aid package they sent you and indicate whether you’re accepting or declining each offer of aid. You don’t have to accept everything. If you’re offered student loans, remember that after you leave school (or drop below half-time status) you’ll have to pay the money back. It’s a good idea to borrow only the amount you’ll need. As a general guideline, your monthly student loan payment should be less than 10% of the net monthly income you plan to earn after college.

Note: Be careful. You may see ads or emails from companies who “guarantee” you financial aid if you pay them a fee. These are scams. You shouldn’t have to pay to qualify for financial aid.

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