spark-admissions-logo Free Consultation
  • Blog
  • > Financial Assistance

College Financial Aid Advice from a Financial Aid Coach

A woman working in front of a laptop, surrounded by papers, colored pens, and an external hard-drive.

Many high school students and their families enter the college financial aid process feeling overwhelmed by all that goes into it. But in truth, it doesn’t need to be a harrowing journey! By understanding the most critical steps in the college financial aid process, you can save yourself time, stress, and money.

Below, Blaine Blontz from Financial Aid Coach has laid out the three most important steps in the process:

Step 1: Submit Financial Aid Applications and Fulfill Requirements

Before submitting any forms, we recommend that you first determine if you need to fill out financial aid forms at all. Not everyone benefits from submitting the financial aid forms, as some families will not qualify for need-based aid based on their existing assets.

There are two options. You certainly can cover your bases and submit financial aid forms to all schools. Or, to save time, you can consider using individual colleges’ Net Price Calculators to determine if you will qualify for need-based financial aid at all. If after inputting the information, you find that you will not qualify for aid, there is little benefit in completing the need-based financial aid application process, specifically the CSS Profile form (see below).

If you determine that you will qualify for need-based financial aid, you can submit the required application forms. There are two forms you need to know about: the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service).

Assume that all schools will require at least the FAFSA to be considered for need-based financial aid. In addition to the FAFSA, some schools will also require the CSS Profile. You can determine which schools will require the CSS Profile here.

Once you have completed the FAFSA and CSS Profile, schools will likely have additional requirements. These tend to include collecting documents through either the school portal or the IDOC (the Institutional Documentation Service, which is overseen by the College Board). Once you submit the FAFSA and CSS Profile, be on the lookout for additional requirements. Be aware: these additional materials may be emailed to the parent or the student.

Finally, know your deadlines! As a general guide, families applying Early Decision or Early Action can use November 15 as a deadline for their financial aid applications. Some schools could be a little earlier or later than that. For Regular Decision, the deadline is likely closer to January 1 or beyond. Make sure to submit all of your requirements by the earliest deadline to ensure that you receive full consideration for need-based aid.

FAFSA and CSS Takeaways

  • Not everyone will benefit from applying for financial aid. Use individual colleges’ Net Price Calculators to determine if you should complete the forms.
  • For need-based aid, schools will require the FAFSA and/or the CSS Profile. Determine which forms are required and what schools’ deadlines are.
  • There will likely be more requirements after the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Be on the lookout for additional requests from schools and be sure to meet any deadlines.

Step 2: Collect Awards and Maximize Financial Aid

This is where the fun begins! We encourage families to treat this process like a business decision. Colleges certainly do!

When you have received admissions offers and financial aid awards from all of the schools you are seriously considering, the ball is in your court as a family. You will have more leverage at this point than any other in the college process.

You do not have to (and should not!) accept the first offer from the college. You have the ability to negotiate and appeal for more financial aid—two separate processes.

Negotiation is when you ask for additional merit-based scholarship aid from the admissions office. This is a subjective process, so all families should negotiate for more merit-based aid. You can even ask for a merit scholarship if you haven’t been offered one initially. However, you are more likely to see an increase in merit-based aid if you have initially received a scholarship from the school. But the worst the school can say is no, so go ahead and ask!

Appealing for aid is when you ask for more need-based aid due to a change in your financial situation. This is most effective when you’ve experienced a change in income or a significant reduction of assets. Appealing occurs through the financial aid office and is very much based on compliance. For that reason, if your family doesn’t have a reduction of income or assets to report (or another situation that you feel isn’t properly reflected on your original financial aid application), it’s unlikely you will receive additional need-based aid.

Appeal and Negotiation Takeaways

  • Families can both appeal and negotiate for more financial aid.
  • Appeal for need-based aid through the financial aid office when you have a reduction of income or other negative financial change to report.
  • Negotiate for more merit-based aid through the admissions office.

Step 3: Determine How to Pay the Remaining Cost

Of course, while it would be great if all colleges covered students’ complete financial needs, that’s unfortunately not the reality. Most people are left with a balance to pay after their financial aid package is determined. So, what’s the best way to pay for college?

That’s really dependent on your family. While there’s not one right way to pay for college, it’s important to know your options, including:

  • Outside scholarships
  • College savings plans
    • 529s
  • College loans
    • Direct student loans
    • Private student loans
    • Parent PLUS loans
  • Home equity line of credit (HELOC)
  • Spending or leveraging investment accounts
    • You can spend down investments
    • Some accounts also allow you to take a loan out against your investments
  • Spending your savings
  • Using your cash flow
  • And more!

You also don’t need to pay the entire bill upfront in most cases. Most schools offer payment plans where you can break the remaining balance into no-interest installments.

Lastly, you can piecemeal a payment strategy together using several options. For example, you could pay for the remaining cost of college using a little bit of each of the following:

  • Outside scholarship
  • College savings plan
  • Cash flow from earnings
  • College loan
  • College payment plan

Paying the Rest Takeaways

  • You have many options when it comes to how to pay your remaining balance for college.
  • You can use multiple options to pay. You are not limited to one option.


Although the process of applying for financial aid for college is complex and multilayered, we hope this will take away some of the anxiety. Best of luck as you navigate the college financial aid process, and if you have any questions, we’re here to help!

For more information about navigating the college financial aid process, contact:
[email protected]


Subscribe to our newsletter for college admissions news

Related articles from the Spark Admissions blog

A stack of books with a graduation cap on top and the text 'National Merit Scholarship' in the negative space to the left.

What is the National Merit Scholarship Program?

Find out how to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship and how to maximize your chances of becoming a winner.

Categories: College Admissions, Financial Assistance, Navigating High School

Read More

Spark Admissions has the highest college admissions success rate in the country.

Contact us to learn more about our admissions consulting services.

Schedule Your Free Consultation