Few students will receive financial assistance this fall without following the one-two-three checklist Holbrook advises all students to follow no matter which college or university they plan to attend. By effectively filling out one form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, on paper or on the Internet, students make themselves eligible for all types of federal aid for college.
"The door is open this time of year, and money is flying out" said Holbrook, Tennessee Technological University's director of financial aid. "But if you neglect any of the important steps in applying, time will run out and the door will shut on the opportunities available."
So, how early is early?
By the end of February, said Holbrook. He suggests that parents grab their W-2's and figure tax returns at the beginning of February, even if the returns are not filed until later, because financial aid applications require tax return information.
Each school also sets individual deadlines for financial aid applications, and a student's scholarship eligibility in particular can be forfeited if a school deadline is missed. For instance, at Tennessee Tech, scholarship applications must be received by the Feb. 15 deadline for students to be eligible, even though the federal FAFSA priority deadline is not until March 15.
Do many students make mistakes on the applications?
It happens all the time, for a variety of reasons, according to Holbrook, and the results are costly.
"Filling out forms incorrectly and having to resubmit them costs students three to four weeks and kills any priority they might have received," said Holbrook. "Even a day can make a difference."
Common mistakes include misunderstandings about how to figure income and how to answer questions about who lives in a household made up of blended families. Holbrook said assumptions are the reasons most filers answer incorrectly. He said most mistakes can be eliminated by reading instructions and definitions on the application.
Once the application is in the mail, why worry about a follow-up?
While schools wait for requested additional documents and information from you, they are making offers to other students who have gotten their information in promptly, said Holbrook.
"Many students are victims of what I call the 'dining room table' syndrome," said Holbrook. "Most financial aid mail comes addressed to the student. It often sits unopened for days until someone opens it and realizes it's a request for additional information."
Holbrook reminds parents and students to communicate about mail received from schools where the students' applications have been submitted.
Where does the application process begin?
FAFSA's are available on-line at www.fafsa.ed.gov/, from high school guidance counselors or from any college or university's financial aid office. Holbrook points out students using the web form receive responses two weeks quicker on average than other filers because the form has features that keep students from accidentally omitting or incorrectly answering questions.If you just want to test drive the idea of applying for financial aid, TTU's financial aid web page at http://www.tntech.edu/www/admin/finaid/ has several helpful Internet links. One link allows a user to quickly estimate expected family contribution and estimated financial aid need. TTU's "Nine-Step Application Checklist" prepares students applying to any school to have their forms processed smoothly and on-time.