COLLEGE FINANCIAL AID
What is the difference between need-based and merit aid?
Need-based aid can come from the federal government, your state government, or the college and universities themselves, and is based on an analysis of your family’s financial need for help with college expenses. Need-based aid can come in the form of scholarships, grants, student loans, or work study. Merit aid, or non-need-based aid, generally comes from the colleges or universities themselves or from private organizations and is given to students without regard to financial need. Merit aid can be given for academic or athletic achievement or for special talents or desirable characteristics.
Should I get private scholarships and how do I find them?
Private scholarships can be a double-edged sword, because some colleges or universities will reduce their own institutional scholarships by the amount of a student’s private scholarship and replace them with student loans instead. Getting a private scholarship is often a highly competitive process for relatively small amounts of money. There are, however, a number of good websites dedicated to helping you look for private scholarships you might be eligible for, such as Scholarships.com and MeritAid.com
What types of educational loans are available for students and parents and what are the terms?
Traditionally, the Federal government has been the largest source of student loans, and the terms and interest rates for Federal student loans vary, depending upon the year and your family’s financial picture. In order to apply for Federally guaranteed student loans, you MUST complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the FAFSA) at fafsa.ed.gov. Student loans from private financial institutions are also available, but the terms and guarantees for these private loans can be much riskier for your family, so please review them carefully!
Can't I just emancipate my child to lower the cost of college?
The Federal government and the colleges and universities themselves have extremely strict guidelines for what they consider to be an independent or “emancipated” student. For example, students must be able to prove that they have been self-supporting for at least two years, married, in the military, or over the age of 24. If students cannot meet these conditions, they are not likely to receive financial aid as an independent student. Talk to us to learn more!
Given the cost of college, is community college a better option?
This is a very complicated question that depends a great deal upon a family’s individual financial situation and their student’s educational goals. Community college CAN be an affordable option for some families, but it does sometimes have significant drawbacks. Request a consultation to discuss your individual situation further.
I've heard about my Expected Family Contribution. Is that what I will have to pay for college?
Your Expected Family Contribution, calculated when you submit your student’s FAFSA, is a major determinant of what you will pay for one year of college, but it is NOT the only factor. Unless your child is admitted to one of the roughly 80 U.S. colleges or universities that meet 100 percent of your financial need (as calculated by the Federal government), you are also likely to pay some portion of “unmet financial need” as well. How much of your financial need a college or university meets varies tremendously by school, so this is an important question to ask each of them.
What is the Financial Aid Formula? Is it the same for every school?
The Federal financial aid formula is a simple subtraction equation: a school’s Cost of Attendance minus your Expected Family Contribution is the amount the government determines is your financial need to fund a college education in any given year. (COA-EFC=NEED) However, in practice, the formula is very complex, because cost of attendance varies dramatically by school. In addition, the calculation of your family’s EFC depends upon a complicated assessment by the Federal government of your family’s financial picture. In addition, schools’ ability to meet your demonstrated financial need varies dramatically by institution. This is just one of the reasons why funding a college education takes a coherent strategy and careful planning!
What financial aid forms do I need to fill out?
This varies by school. To be eligible for any Federal student or parent loans, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) MUST be submitted for your student for every school they apply to. Approximately 250 schools also require an additional financial aid form called the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, available from and administered by the College Board. Some schools require their own institutional financial aid forms as well. In addition, the way schools handle your tax updates can vary as well. Some schools may also require verification forms, business and farm supplements and non-custodial parent financial information. We at College Strategy Experts make it our business to understand the details of the financial aid forms and advise our clients how to handle their completion.
Will tuition be my only college expense? Do colleges help me with those additional costs?
Tuition will almost certainly NOT be your only college expense. An institution’s full Cost of Attendance (COA) can include room and board (old-fashioned terms for rent and food), student fees (everything but the kitchen sink), books, transportation, health fees, etc. Be a smart consumer; some schools are not very transparent about advertising ALL of their costs, so ask lots of questions! And yes, the schools themselves, the Federal government, the state government, and some private institutions will help you cover qualified educational expenses other than tuition, but HOW they cover the expenses (grants, loans, or work study) and in what amounts varies widely. Come talk to us to learn more!
Given the cost of college, shouldn't I only be applying to public universities?
Yikes! This is one of the greatest myths out there! The “sticker price” of public schools IS generally lower than that of private schools. But PLEASE be careful! Private colleges and universities often give away far more gift aid (grant and scholarship money) than public schools do. In addition, because many public universities (especially in California) are severely impacted, it can take more than four years to graduate from these schools, adding dramatically to the cost of a public education. That in no way implies that public schools are the wrong choice in every case; it just means that choosing the most affordable college education can be extremely complicated, depending upon your individual circumstances. We at College Strategy Experts are here to help!
What's the difference between the ACT and SAT? And what are SAT subjects? How about APs?
All examinations are national standardized tests. The SAT and ACT are required for admission by all but a couple of hundred (but growing number) of “test-optional” colleges and universities. All U.S. colleges or universities that require them will accept EITHER the ACT OR the SAT. Although they are both used as indicators of academic readiness for college by college admissions officers, they are very different tests, and some students do better on one than the other. To complicate matters, the SAT issued a revision in 2016 to make it more like the ACT. SAT Subject Tests are national tests that assess students’ mastery of various high school academic subjects. Some more competitive colleges require that high school students submit scores from one or more of them as a condition for admission. Advanced Placement, or AP examinations, are national tests offered by the College Board in May of each year that test high school students’ mastery of college-level material in various academic subjects. Many of the more competitive colleges value these tests scores highly as part of their admissions decisions. Some, but not all, colleges will give college credit for higher scores on the AP examinations. Want to know which tests you should take? Talk to us to learn more!
Do I have to send in all my test scores or only my best ones?
The answer depends upon the schools you are applying to. Most schools will only require that you send in your best SAT or ACT scores (College Board’s Score Choice program), but some schools will ask to look at the scores for every test date. Even if they ask for ALL your scores, most schools will really only consider a student’s best score in their admissions decision. Some schools will also look at your “Super Score”; that is, your best scores on each individual section of the exams, even if they were received on different test dates. If you are confused, we’re not surprised, and that’s why College Strategy Experts exists – to walk you through these complicated decisions!
What's the Common Application?
The Common Application (informally known as the Common App) is an undergraduate college admission application that high school students may use to apply to over 800 member colleges and universities in 47 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. It makes college applications convenient, in that one application can be submitted to more than one school. However, please be aware than many of the more competitive colleges and universities require additional admissions materials, including additional essays. If you need help with essay development, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Do the UCs and other college and universities have their own applications?
Yes, the University of California (UC) schools have their own admissions application and do not use the Common Application. Some additional schools have their own institutional applications for admission as well, and some schools require considerable admissions material in addition to the Common App.
How many essays do I have to write?
How do I get my teacher recommendations to the schools I'm applying to?
This can be confusing, because the process can vary by college, and it can also vary by the high school your student attends and the software they are using to communicate with colleges. Generally, teacher recommendations are sent electronically to colleges by students’ high schools, once students have signed required release waivers. But some colleges and universities still want to do things the old-fashioned way and receive recommendation letters through the mail. Read each schools’ admission applications instructions carefully. Need help with all the details of college admissions? Contact us at 858-413-7062.
How do I apply for merit aid?
Again, this varies by institution. Some schools provide merit aid automatically to talented students that the schools really want to attract. Other schools require lengthy merit aid applications (in addition to admissions applications) to qualify for these grants. In addition, many private organizations give merit aid to deserving students who compete for the awards through private scholarship applications. Merit aid is also called “non-need-based aid”; that is, it is given to talented students regardless of financial need. Confused? Try a free initial consultation with us!
Aren't some ACT and SAT dates better than others?
What's the difference between Early Action, Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, or Regular Decision?
This can be complicated and confusing, and we at College Strategy Experts are here to sort that out for you. In general, many schools invite you to apply early (generally in mid-November) in a binding (Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action) or non-binding (Early Action) way, so that you can demonstrate that these are your top-choice schools. These early applications MAY give you an admissions boost in some cases, but, particularly with binding early applications, may also have a large negative impact on the financial aid you receive from the institution. These are decisions to be very careful about. If you don’t know what you’re doing, look for some expert guidance! If you don’t apply early, most applications are due between November 30th and February 1st, although some application dates are "rolling".
What do colleges care about besides grades and test scores?
A big mistake in preparing yourself for college admissions is to focus ONLY on grades and test scores. Certainly, these two criteria are often the most important factors in college admissions decisions and are frequently used to weed students out of individual schools’ admissions pools. However, how challenging a student's high school curriculum is (think honors and AP courses) can be even MORE important! And most colleges are looking for students that bring more to the table than just academics. They want to know what your extracurricular passions and interests are and how you have demonstrated your commitment to them. They also want to know what you will contribute to their college or university beyond academics. Your college essays are one CRITICAL way to show colleges who you really are, and at College Strategy Experts, we take great pride in our essay development process. And if you need help positioning your student for highly competitive college admissions, you know where to contact us!