How to Choose Financial Aid, Budget and Plan for College

Getting accepted to college is one of the most exciting times you’ll experience with your child. It can also be one of the most overwhelming, especially if you’re going through the process for the first time.

Not to worry – we have a step-by-step checklist you can follow to ensure your child will be ready for the first day of the semester. If your child is just starting to receive acceptance letters, here’s exactly what you need to do to start preparing.

The tips below cover both budgeting and personal finance information – including details about financial aid and other important details – as well as general organizational tips.

(As we've talked about in other articles, being organized in general can help your finances: you'll pay fewer late fees, you may not get stuck with the most expensive dorm or meal plan because it's the only choice remaining, etc.)

Step 1: Wait for All Acceptance Letters

It goes without saying, but you should try and wait patiently to hear back from all the colleges your child applied to. You don’t want to jump the gun, as your child could have a change of heart.

The response rates vary among colleges, so don’t be disappointed if it takes a few more weeks to hear back. If your child applied close to the deadline, expect it to take a little longer.

Some colleges will announce the dates you should expect to hear back from them.

Mark those down on the calendar to stay organized.

Step 2: Analyze the Schools Again

Once you’ve received answers from every school, reevaluate each of them. Deciding where to attend college is an important decision that shouldn’t be made overnight.

If needed, make additional trips to campuses. Your child needs to get a sense of where they’ll be staying for the next 4 years.

The atmosphere of a college, or the surrounding area, can make or break their decision to attend.  

Is your child second-guessing their initial decision? Be supportive and encourage them to talk to current students at their top prospective schools. The worst thing you can do is pressure them into a decision. Let your child decide how to start his or her adult life.

Step 3: Review Financial Aid Packages

The cost of college is probably one of your top concerns. There are many ways to pay less for college, and it (literally) pays to look at what options are available.

Start with the colleges your child wants to attend first. Call up each Financial Aid department and clarify exactly what they’re offering your child. Financial aid packages can be confusing, and they’re used to fielding questions about it. No question is too “silly” when it comes to how you and your child are going to afford tuition.

Ask about work-study programs colleges have as well. Working on campus will be easier on your child’s schedule, and they might be able to earn enough to offset any miscellaneous costs (like textbooks). If your child can become a Resident Assistant (RA) after their first year, that should compensate room and board.

It’s also a wise idea to check into outside financial aid, such as grants and scholarships. If federal student aid isn’t cutting it, you can take out private student loans – just be sure to shop around to get the best interest rates.

A word of warning on cost: just because a college is pricier doesn’t mean it’s better. Likewise, if the best education is offered by a more expensive college, don’t write it off completely. Search hard for other forms of financial aid.

Step 4: Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

Have you experienced a sudden change in your financial situation since submitting your information to FAFSA? Mention this when calling Financial Aid offices for information. Sometimes they’ll take another look at the amount of aid they can give you.

However, don’t try to negotiate with them. Pitting colleges against each other isn’t appropriate.

They’re willing to help as long as you actually need it – most colleges assess the financial needs of students based on set criteria. Saying you have a better offer from another college doesn’t change that criteria.

Step 5: Pick One School and Stick With It

It’s bad form to send multiple deposits to multiple schools. It’s difficult to choose, but realistically, your child can’t attend more than one school.

The exception to this rule is if your child is waitlisted at their top choice. It’s smart to have a backup plan, so have your child accept at their top choice (where they’ve been waitlisted) and their backup choice.

Step 6: Send Your Confirmation and Deposit

This is the overwhelming part of finalizing your child’s college plans. There are many deadlines to keep track of when sending in paperwork and deposits. Roommate preferences, meal plans, and housing choices should be confirmed by certain deadlines.

Take a look at the college’s website, as they often have calendars or timelines for new students to follow.

If your child is going to be on a sports team, make sure they keep in contact with their coach over the summer. There may be extra requirements for them.

Step 7: Send Rejection Forms

Once your child has decided on a college, notify the other colleges they were accepted to that they won’t be attending. There’s typically a standard “rejection form” within the acceptance packet you received you can send back.

This is important to do because other students could be on that college’s waitlist. Letting schools know your child won’t be attending allows them to open up a spot to other potential students.

Step 8: Relax!

Finally, all the planning and hectic submission of paperwork has come to an end. Enjoy having your child around for the summer before they’re off to start the next chapter of their lives. Go on one last family vacation, throw a nice graduation party, and have fun celebrating your child’s success.