Scholarships and Grants

What’s the Iowa Financial Aid Application?

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If you’re a senior in high school, you’re probably hearing a lot about the FAFSA. But there’s another application that should be on your radar, too.

By completing the FAFSA, you’re applying for most forms of federal and state financial aid. When you finish the FAFSA, you’ll see a prompt asking if you want to complete the Iowa Financial Aid application as well. Say yes.

That prompt actually leads to something called the “Eligibility Wizard,” a short series of simple questions to determine whether you might be eligible for additional state aid. If you’re not eligible, you’re done. If you meet initial eligibility requirements, you’ll see instructions to continue the application process for those additional grants and scholarships.

Did you already say no to the Iowa Financial Aid Application? You can find it here. It’s worth the few minutes it takes.

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How to spot a scholarship scam

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Fraudulent organizations sometimes pose as legitimate agencies willing to help with scholarship searches. They often guarantee you a scholarship or promise to do all the work for you for a fee. The Federal Trade Commission advises students to be cautious of these red flags for scholarship and FAFSA scams:

  • “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • “We just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
  • “We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”
  • “The scholarship will cost some money.”
  • “You’ve been selected by a ‘national foundation’ to receive a scholarship.”

Busting scholarship myths

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“I won’t qualify.”

That’s the No. 1 reason students don’t apply for scholarships—and they’re often very wrong. Today we’re going to bust some common myths.

MYTH: I’d have to be a genius or a star athlete to get any money.
REALITY: Academics and athletics are just two among many criteria that could earn you a scholarship. Some awards are based or service or leadership. Others go to students who take part in certain organizations or activities. (Iowa has a scholarship just for participants in the Iowa State Fair.) Some companies offer scholarships to the children of employees. Many scholarships are downright quirky. Do a search on Unigo and you’ll find awards for students who answer questions like “What flavor ice cream would you like to be?”

MYTH: I’ll have to write dozens of different essays.
REALITY: You can’t turn in the exact same essay for every scholarship application, but you’re likely to see some common themes in the questions, like accepting challenges or embracing new ways of thinking. Save each essay that you submit, then look for sections that can be repurposed. Just make sure you do enough reworking to answer the question being asked.

MYTH: No one with any pull will give me a recommendation.
REALITY: Your recommendations don’t have to come from “big names.” In fact, choosing someone well-known can backfire if that person doesn’t really know you. You need a recommendation from someone who understands your strengths and can offer specific examples that illustrate them. Talk to the teacher of a class you enjoyed or the advisor for an activity you took part in. What a person can say about you is much more important than his or her name recognition.

MYTH: There’s so little money available, it’s a waste of time.
REALITY: There are billions of dollars available every year. Some of that money actually goes unclaimed because not enough people apply for it. Check with your high school counselor and your college financial aid office. Do a Web search for scholarships that might suit you, whether you’re a bassoon player or a comic artist or an aspiring funeral director. The money is out there.

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.

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.