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Now is the time high school seniors begin to hear back from colleges they've applied to, and they're starting to make their choices. Cost can factor into that choice and might result in a student needing to apply for scholarships and need-based assistance to afford higher education.

Jake Doll, the director of college counseling and assistant head of upper school at York Country Day School, has a number of tips he gives to students who are beginning this process.

He said the month of March is the biggest time of the year for regular decision deadlines. While some students might have already chosen a college by applying early decision — which means if they are accepted they are automatically deciding to go to that one school — there are others who will be making their choices in March or April.

This is when affordability begins to factor in, Doll explained. Students have two major paths when it comes to affording college: need-based aid and scholarships.

Need-based aid is typically derived through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA). FASFA awards money for students through grants and loans based on household income, which includes how much parents and guardians make each year, as well as how much the student makes.

"Grants and scholarships are the words everyone loves most," Doll said with a laugh.

Doll explained this year was different from past years in regard to FASFA because families do not need to have their taxes completed for 2016 before filling out the FASFA forms. Previously, families would have needed to complete that year's tax information before applying.

This year, families and students can provide tax information from 2015. This allowed students to begin applying for FASFA as early as last October, Doll explained. Having FASFA information filled out can be helpful in terms of getting better financial aid packages from the institutions being considered.

Doll explained colleges might look at that information to give out need-based scholarships. Having FASFA information sent to colleges early in the process offers a student a chance of getting a better financial aid package, Doll said. The priority deadline for FASFA was March 1. At this point, students may still apply but may not get the best packages.

"If a student is going to qualify for a loan amount, that won't change," Doll said about the deadline. "But there could be grants they could have qualified for if they had been on time."

Other tips for FASFA:

  • Write down your username, password and pin number and keep them in a safe place you'll remember. You'll need this information for as long as you're in college. 
  • Apply for FASFA as early as you can.
  • Make sure you have all the information you might need: tax information, income information, etc. 

Scholarships are the other main source of financial assistance for college students. Doll suggests beginning to apply for scholarships as early as 10th grade. Even if students are too young to apply for scholarships, they can begin making a comprehensive list of ones to apply for when they are a junior or senior.

Scholarships can apply to an individual based on their major, their school or volunteer activities, the job they have, the jobs their parents have and more.

The best places to find scholarships, according to Doll, are the school's guidance counselor or by browsing the web. He suggested visiting sites such as cappex.com, Raise.me and fastweb.com.

Doll said applying for scholarships is essentially like a part-time job. Finding the scholarships is easy, but taking the time to apply for each one can be  time-consuming. Doll added that some might start to overlap.

"After the first couple, a lot of them start to ring the same," Doll said, adding that no matter the time commitment, scholarships can be a huge help.

"Everything adds up in the end, even if it's just to pay for books for a semester," he said.

More tips for students seeking scholarships:

  • Begin looking early, preferably around 10th grade. 
  • Keep organized. Keep a list or spreadsheet with deadlines, information needed, essays, etc. 
  • Talk with the school guidance counselor about ones you might qualify for. 
  • Search online for scholarships. 
  • Talk with your employer and your parents' employers to see if their company has scholarships.
  • Reach out to colleges you're interested in. Set up interviews and regular correspondence with those that award scholarships, because it might increase your chances and create a more memorable impression.
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