Scholarships and Grants

Winning application strategies

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We’re hitting deadline season for college and scholarship applications, but you don’t need to panic. Here are some quick tips:

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Apply to more than one school. Yes, you should have a “safety school,” but also try for a “stretch school.” Some students are surprised when they’re accepted at a school they thought was out of their reach. You can’t truly compare costs of different schools until you have award letters from those schools in hand. An expensive school might end up being the most affordable option if it offers a generous financial aid package.

Apply for more than one scholarship. You can improve your odds by expanding your search. Some scholarships actually have trouble giving away all their available money because they don’t get enough applicants. Talk to counselors, teachers, coaches and mentors about scholarship possibilities.

Put some effort into your essays. These are a chance to distinguish yourself, so take your time. Make sure your essay relates to the question, and back up what you say with specific examples. Don’t just list your accomplishments. Show that you’re capable of growing and learning from challenges. Proofread at least twice, then ask someone else to read behind you.

Sell your actual strengths. Don’t exaggerate or lie. Think about the things that you truly do well, and focus on those. Having trouble identifying your best areas? Ask an adult close to you, “What makes you proud of me?”

Be sure to submit. You should see a confirmation screen or receive a confirmation email when you’re done.

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Personal Connection is Key for College Apps, Says Drake Professor

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College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.

Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.

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To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:

While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.

As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.

Some Recommendations on Recommendation Letters

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College Application Month is underway away (including the Iowa College Application Campaign), and students are working to complete packages that will best showcase to colleges who they are as a person and a student. An important, though sometimes overlooked part of the application, is the recommendation letter. A good letter can provide a broader picture of what makes a student unique and well-suited for a school, while a bad one can come off as obligatory and offer no personal connection to the subject. Here are some tips to consider when pursuing application letters:

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Who Needs Recommendation Letters?

Most schools will state if a letter of recommendation is required or optional, though some may provide the opportunity to provide both. Usually, required letters will be asked from a school counselor or teachers with whom the student has worked. Even if a school only requires an optional letter, students should take advantage of the opportunity to present someone who can reinforce their strengths to an admissions officer.

Recommendations can be essential in the following situations:

  1. A student needs someone else to help explain an obstacle or hardship.  Learning disabilities, deaths in the family, unusual personal or family challenges can all fall into this category and a school counselor is often the person who can help explain.
  2. The applicant needs clarification from a school official to explain what is or isn’t on the transcript.  If a student was unable to complete a certain course because it wasn’t offered on campus or limited by school policy, the school counselor can help explain.
  3. A student knows their application will undergo review.  Letters of recommendation from teachers and optional essays will help in the holistic review process.

Who Should Write Recommendation Letters?

Finding the right person to write a student’s recommendation letter is a strategic decision. The right person will know a student well, be able add something to the application that isn’t well represented in the student resume and essays and can speak to your child’s academic strengths?

Students should include at least one academic teacher who has taught them in class for at least one full semester.  Even if the student didn’t earn an A, a the teacher who can discuss a student’s academic abilities will go a long way to supplementing a list of activities from a student’s resume. Teachers should be encouraged to illustrate with specific examples, if possible, showing how a particular project, paper or situation showed student strengths through handling the work.

Who Should NOT Write a Letter of Recommendation?

The desire to get a big or recognizable name to write a letter of recommendation will not only serve as a poor replacement for quality letters people who know the student well, they can actually undercut the impact of a letter if the writer only offers a broad recommendation that doesn’t show closer knowledge. Just because a family member might be connected to an influential community member or businessperson doesn’t mean that a letter can replace one written by a person who knows the student as a person.

Finished FAFSA? Here’s What to Expect Next

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By now, students and families with an eye toward college, or any kind of education beyond high school, should have a pretty good understanding of just how important the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is to helping them achieve their goals. If not, here’s a good place to get started with the FAFSA.

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Filing the FAFSA is crucial to getting money for school. But what happens after submitting the FAFSA? Here are some things for families to look out for, as well as some things to remember when dealing with information

Student Aid Report
After completing the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education will process the data and compile the Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR will be sent to families and the colleges selected during the FAFSA. If an email address was provided during the application, instructions to access an online copy of the SAR will be emailed; otherwise it will arrive snail mail.

Typically, applicants can access their SAR within three to five days if the FAFSA was filed electronically (approximately three weeks if filed by paper). The SAR contains the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as well as initial information about Pell Grant eligibility. Colleges and universities use the EFC to determine student eligibility for federal grants, loans, work-study and other financial aid programs.

How is the Expected Family Contribution Calculated?
Variables that determine a student’s EFC include income and net worth for the student and parents, family size, age of older parent, state and federal taxes and number of family members attending college. As a result, the EFC might change from year to year when the FAFSA is refiled.

Understanding Financial Need vs. College Costs
Each college or university listed on a student’s FAFSA application that accepts that student will determine financial need and present the applicant with an award letter describing the aid offered. “Financial Need” is determined by calculating the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the EFC determined through the FAFSA.

The EFC will remain the same in a given year (unless an unusual family situation arises) regardless of which college or university the student attends. The amount of aid received cannot exceed the total cost of attendance at a college or university.

Award Letters
Each award letter will include federal, state and college-specific financial aid programs. It is likely that a student’s award letter will include one or more types of loans. These letters often don’t cleanly show which funds offered are scholarship or grant aid (free money) and which are loans (money which must be repaid). To get some tips on understanding award letters, check out our video series here and here.

Have You Been Selected for FAFSA Verification? Here’s What to Do!

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Verification is the process by which colleges review student financial aid applications for accuracy where the U.S. Department of Education identifies some FAFSA applications for colleges to review.  In addition, colleges may review additional applications based on answers provided to certain FAFSA questions.

Roughly one-third of all FAFSAs filed are selected for verification and the process must be completed before financial aid can be awarded. If you are selected for verification, you can expect the following:

  1. When you receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) after completing the FAFSA, you will see a comment stating “Your FAFSA has been selected for a review process called verification. Your school has the authority to collect certain financial documents from you”.
  2. Your college’s financial aid office will contact you and inform you of documents you need to submit and any additional forms you need to complete.
  3. Your college may be required to verify the following data elements:
    • Adjusted gross income
    • Taxes  paid
    • Income earned from work (for non-tax-filers)
    • Untaxed portions of IRA distributions or pensions
    • IRA deductions and payments
    • Tax exempt interest income
    • Education credits
    • Household size
    • Number in college
    • Receipt of food stamps/SNAP benefit
    • Child support paid
    • High school completion status
    • Any other inconsistent or conflicting information.
  4. To verify the elements above, the college may ask for documents which may include, but are not limited to:
    • Signed copies of the prior year tax transcripts for parent and student (if the student is dependent) or Federal IRS Data Retrieval.
    • W-2s showing wages, 1099s and supporting schedules.
    • Statement of child support paid, documentation that child support payments were made, and/or copy of the separation agreement or divorce decree that shows the amount of child support to be provided.
    • Verification of net worth.
    • Documentation of food stamps/SNAP benefit.
    • Copy of the applicant’s high school diploma, final official high school transcript that shows the date when the diploma was awarded, GED certificate/transcript, state certificate or transcript received after passing a state-authorized exam (HiSET, TASC or other state-authorized exam) or a copy of the “secondary school leaving certificate” (or other similar document) for students who completed high school in a foreign country.

The best action you can take to reduce the likelihood of being selected for verification is to use the IRS data retrieval tool to automatically populate your (and if you are a dependent student, your parents’) tax information directly from the IRS into your FAFSA. When you use the IRS data retrieval tool, the tax information is considered to be already verified so you will not have to submit documentation.

If you are selected for verification, ensure that you respond to all requests from your college or university. If you do not submit documentation on time your financial aid may arrive after late fees have already been accessed to your account.

These FAFSA Tips Will Help Save Time, Avoid Mistakes

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For the second year, October 1 marks the availability of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the next academic year.  The FAFSA is a standardized application used to determine eligibility for federal grants, loans and work-study funds from the federal government.  Additionally, many colleges and states, including Iowa, use FAFSA information when determining eligibility for institutional and state financial aid programs. It’s kind of a big deal!

When it comes to the FAFSA, remember these tips:

File the FAFSA no matter your financial situation.  Even if you do not think you will qualify for need-based financial aid, you should still file the FAFSA.  Many colleges require that you file the FAFSA to be considered for institutional aid.  In addition, you are required to complete a FAFSA to be eligible for federal Stafford loans and completing the FAFSA does not obligate you to accept any of the aid offered.

Never pay to file the FAFSA.  You can file the FAFSA for free at http://www.fafsa.gov.  Reputable resources, including Iowa College Aid, are available to help for free.  In addition, more than 50 College Goal Sunday events will be held throughout Iowa to provide one-on-one assistance with FAFSA filing.

Electronically access the FAFSA. The FSA ID comprises of a username and password. Users who have not already done so, will be directed to a link to register for a new FSA ID upon arriving at the http://www.fafsa.gov website. The registration process should take less than seven minutes.

Meet state and college deadlines.  Many states, including Iowa, have FAFSA filing deadlines for state-funded scholarships, grants and work-study opportunities. Keep in mind most colleges and universities have their own FAFSA filing deadlines. You should check with your college of choice to determine its priority deadline for financial aid and if additional documentation is required.

Double check information to avoid delays. Review your FAFSA information before you submit it for processing.  Make sure your Social Security number and your parent’s Social Security number are typed in the correct spaces.  Mix-ups like these will cause processing delays.

It’s easier than ever with the data retrieval tool. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool allows students and parents to access their IRS federal tax return information from the IRS website and securely transfer the necessary data directly into their FAFSA. It is highly recommended that you use the data retrieval tool if you are eligible as it is the best way to ensure that your FAFSA has accurate tax information.  An added bonus is that IRS transferred information means that you won’t need to provide a copy of your or your parent’s tax return to your college. The tax data should be available within 1-2 weeks of electronically filing taxes and then the IRS Data Retrieval Tool can be used to make a FASFA correction, streamlining the completion of the FAFSA.

Iowa Residents: Don’t forget to complete the Iowa Financial Aid Application! Upon completion of the FAFSA, all Iowa resident applicants have the option to link to the Iowa Financial Aid Application directly from their FAFSA confirmation page. If eligible, you will have the ability to pre-populate most of your demographic data to the Iowa application in the process.  This not only streamlines the federal and state financial aid application process but also solidifies access to the Iowa application if you had not been informed of its availability.

FAFSA: The Most Important Tool for Financial Aid

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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a key part of college financial aid. While many families might think that the FAFSA is only for lower-income households, the truth is that the application helps make federal, state and school funds available for all students, regardless of their family’s income.

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Here are some reasons to complete the FAFSA:

  1. To qualify for a variety scholarships and grants. Many federal and state scholarships (including those in Iowa) require a completed FAFSA for consideration, even when those scholarships and grants do not consider family income. FAFSA information can also impact the financial aid offered by schools in terms of grants or other awards.
  2. Some financial aid opportunities are available on a limited basis. Completing the FAFSA as soon as possible gives students the best chance for receiving those aid amounts.
  3. Completing the FAFSA earlier gives students the time to focus on other parts of college preparation, such as completing college applications, focusing on coursework and applying for scholarships.
  4. When students have completed their FAFSA, schools can more easily provide estimated financial aid offers sooner. This makes comparing colleges much easier, as students will have a better idea of what their education will actually cost them at each school to which they are accepted.