15 Concepts You Should Understand When Applying For College

  1. FAFSA - It stands for Free Application For Student Aid. You'll have to fill it out if you want to take federal student loans. Schools also use the FAFSA information to award need-based aid. Some schools use it to award merit aid as well. Your EFC is calculated by the FAFSA. If you have a very low EFC, you also may qualify for grants and/or subsidized federal loans (meaning the government pays the interest while you're in school).

  2. EFC - This is your Expected Family Contribution, and a number calculated by the FAFSA that represents what the federal government thinks you can afford to pay for college each year. In reality, it's usually much higher than what most families can afford or are willing to spend. There are schools that promise to meet 100% of need. This typically means they will offer some type of aid to fill the gap between the sticker price and your EFC (if there is a gap).

  3. CSS Profile - This is another financial form similar to but more comprehensive than the FAFSA. Schools use the information in different ways as a basis for making need and merit based awards. Not all schools use the CSS Profile.

  4. Early Decision - Schools who offer an Early Decision application period typically require that you sign an agreement promising to accept an offer if one is made. In the event that you are admitted to that school, you are expected to accept the offer. If you don't other schools may be informed that you have broken your agreement and this can reflect poorly on you. The ability for other students from your high school to attend that school may also be put in jeopardy. It is best not to apply early decision unless you are willing to accept the offer - even if no financial aid is offered. You may be able to make a case for rejecting the offer for financial reasons, but you'd need to have a strong argument in some cases.

  5. Early Action - Unlike early decision, when you apply Early Action, you are making no commitment to attend that school. Applying early action is a great way to speed up the time it takes to find out which schools you've been accepted to.

  6. Rolling Admission - These are schools that accept applications on an on-going basis for a period of time.

  7. Financial Aid Award Letter - There is no standardization of award letters. When you have been accepted to a school, you should expect to get a letter either with the acceptance, shortly after the acceptance, or by a specific date advertised by the school. You may have to get clarification on the letter, and you absolutely should be sure of all costs before accepting an offer. Schools may include acronyms that don't mean anything to you, they may leave off some costs (like room and board), they may include student loans labeled as financial aid, etc.

  8. Award Appeal - It is possible to appeal your financial aid award, but each school may have a different process for doing so. You may ask a school to match a better offer from another school or try to demonstrate that your income has gone down since the year on which your FAFSA is based. Be prepared to support your position.

  9. Common App - This is one application that many schools accept. If you use it, you have the benefit of filling out this one application and being able to submit it to many schools. Each school, however, will probably ask supplemental questions and may require a different essay topic.

  10. Coalition App - Much like the Common App, this app is accepted by many schools, especially schools that have made a commitment to providing an affordable education.

  11. Federal Student Loans - Federal loans are offered by the government, but may be serviced by one of many companies. You must fill out a FAFSA form to take a federal loan, and there are annual and lifetime limits for how much you can take, starting with a minimum of $5,500 for freshman year. For this reason, if you know you will need the maximum in federal loans, you should start taking them your freshman year even if you have savings to cover all costs for that year.

  12. Private Student Loans - If you have maxed out your federal student loan for a given year and have additional need, you can take private loans. Your school may include the name of a lender in your Financial Aid Award letter, but you are not required to use that lender, and you should compare lenders, interest rates and repayment terms carefully. You should also calculate how much you will need to take out in student loans in total for all years of college and find out what your payments will likely add up to. Then compare that to how much you'll likely earn after taxes to make sure you'll be able to handle the payments. Also, if you can avoid student loans, you should do that.

  13. Sticker Price - This is simply the advertised price of attending a specific school. When it comes to private schools especially, almost no one pays the sticker price.

  14. Net Price - This is the amount you actually pay after financial aid awards. All schools have a net price calculator on their websites to help you estimate this amount, but not all of the calculators are very accurate.

  15. School Rankings - US News and World Reports as well as other organizations rank schools on various criteria leading schools to make decisions to try to rise in the rankings and, essentially, game the system. While the rankings can sometimes be helpful, be careful of putting too much stock in them, and don't shy away from a school solely because of its ranking.


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