College Financial Aid Planning Calendar

This calendar identifies key steps that students and parents should take each year as they plan for future college costs.

Birth

Parents should start saving for college using a 529 college savings plan. It is never too early to start the process.

Elementary and Middle School

Parents should encourage their children to explore extracurricular activities and hobbies, especially ones where the children have a strong interest that is likely to continue. Depth is more important that breadth.

Increase the monthly contributions to the child's college savings plan when the child no longer needs diapers and daycare.

High School (Freshman Year)

Start searching for scholarships every year in high school and continue through the senior year in college. Scholarships are a form of financial aid that does not need to be repaid. Scholarships can be won each year in high school. Some are even available to younger children. Learn the Top Ten Tips on How to Win Scholarships.

Get the facts about college costs. Use a few college net price calculators to get an early awareness of college affordability.

Use FAFSA4Caster to find out how much federal student aid your child might be eligible to receive.

The student should try to earn college credit in high school by taking Advanced Placement (AP) tests, College Level Entrance Program (CLEP) tests, Proficiency Examination Program (PEP) tests and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. Continue taking these tests during the sophomore, junior and senior years in high school.

Parents should encourage their children to pursue the most academically rigorous classes available that fulfill the college admissions requirements of most colleges.

The parents should start learning the language of student financial aid and exploring the types of financial aid that can help them pay for college costs.

Continue saving for the child's college education.

High School (Sophomore Year)

The student should start reading the articles that appear on the front page and opinion sections of a daily newspaper every day. This is one of the best ways to build vocabulary, reading and analytic ability, as well as awareness of current and topical events. It also helps students prepare for the SAT, ACT and AP tests, which include analytic reading passages.

Compare the current balance of the student's college savings plan with the college savings goal. If progress is falling short, increase the amount saved per month to compensate.

High School (Junior Year)

The student should take the PSAT in the fall of the junior year in high school. Not only is this test practice for the SAT, but it is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship program.

Explore financial aid options. These include grants and scholarships, loans, and work-study programs that can help pay for college costs. Also consider volunteer programs like AmeriCorps. Learn about Student Aid Secrets for Increasing Aid Eligibility

The student should start applying for scholarships, if he/she hasn't already started. The scholarship application essays will provide practice for college admissions essays. 

The base year for financial aid application forms begins January 1 of the junior year in high school. Avoid artificially increasing income through capital gains and retirement plan distributions.

Begin taking the SAT in the spring of the junior year in high school.

Attend financial aid nights and college planning nights hosted by the student's high school and local colleges in April and May of the junior year and fall of the senior year in high school.

Work with the student's guidance counselor to identify colleges that are a good match for the student's background and interests as well as the family's ability to pay. Use CollegeNavigator.gov to gather statistics on each college. Visit these colleges during the junior and senior years in high school. Try to visit when classes are in session and students are on campus. (Also visit each college's web site.)

By now, most of the money in a student's college savings plan should be in low-risk investments where there is little or no risk of loss. Continue making monthly contributions.

High School (Senior Year)

The last opportunities to take the SAT and ACT occur in the fall of the senior year in high school.

Before finalizing the student's list of colleges, find out each college's actual costs. Use net price calculators to discover the college's true out-of-pocket cost - the net price - after grants and other gift aid are subtracted from the college's cost of attendance. 

Build a checklist of deadlines for college admissions and financial aid. Include each college's early admission and regular admission deadlines, as well as the college's financial aid deadlines. Also include admissions testing dates. 

File applications for college admissions in the fall of the senior year in high school. Apply early action (non-binding) to a college that is likely to admit the student early. This makes the rest of the process less stressful and early admission may eliminate the need to apply to safety schools. Applying to several schools will increase the chances of the student being admitted to at least one school with a generous financial aid package. Also, apply to at least one financial aid safety school, which is a school where the student could afford to enroll even without any financial aid.

Ask each college's financial aid office about any forms that are required to apply for financial aid. Be sure to file the forms by or before the stated deadlines. Financial aid funds are limited and some college aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. So, the earlier you apply, the better.

If required by the school, file the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form, which becomes available on October 1. Only about 225 colleges require the PROFILE form. 

File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible after January 1 at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Not only is this form used to apply for federal aid, but it is also used to apply for financial aid from state governments and many colleges and universities.

The FAFSA is easy to complete online because you can automatically transfer your federal income tax return information from the IRS to the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. File your taxes as soon as possible, but do not delay submitting the FAFSA. Estimate income and tax information if your taxes are not completed by each college's financial aid deadline. You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update the income and tax information on the FAFSA a few weeks after your federal income tax returns have been filed.

Read the book, Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to learn more about filling out the FAFSA form.

College acceptances and financial aid award letters will begin to arrive in late March and early April.

The student and parents should review financial aid award letters together. Award letters can be confusing and difficult to interpret. The student will need the parents' help to evaluate the financial aid award letters and figure out which financial aid packages are affordable.

Students must make their college decisions and accept the college's financial aid package by the National Candidate's Reply Date of May 1.

Students and parents should submit all supporting documents as required by the college the student decides to attend. The college will also require the family to pay a non-refundable tuition deposit. 

Peak borrowing season starts in the summer before college matriculation.

The student can earn some money by working during the summer to help pay for college. If jobs are not available, the student should consider volunteering through the AmeriCorps program to earn an education award to help pay for college.

Continue contributing to the student's college savings plan even though college is less than a year away.

Carefully examine the bill from the college. Review all of the expenses and understand how they will be paid, such as through scholarships, part-time employment and student loans.