Usually the first reality check a prospective student receives when they begin looking at colleges and universities is the cost involved, some institutions charge as much as $20,000 a year in tuition and fees.
Fortunately, there are several non-scholarship options available to students to help offset these costs. Foremost among these options is the Federal Student Aid . FSA offers students either grants (cash awards with no requirements for paying back the money) or low-interest student loans (payment is deferred while students are enrolled or on active military service). The amount you receive of each is based on financial status and level of need.
The catch, though, is you must file early. The pool of FSA money is limited, changes annually, and is available to every prospective student on a first come, first served basis.
While all institutions have separate filing deadlines regarding financial aid applications, all base your eligibility on your financial status of the previous year, and you won't know that until you do your taxes. Consequently, while "Uncle Sam" lets you hold off until April 15 to file your taxes, if you want Financial Aid, it would be in your best interest to get them done sooner, as in the day after you get your W-2. In some cases, especially when your parents can still claim you as a dependent, doing your taxes will be complicated (if you're a dependent, the government will factor in their income into your net financial worth and offset a portion of your educational needs to them), you'll do okay going with an estimated tax value (you can look at your Leave and Earning Statements to determine your tax status, you only need the W-2 to file). If you need to make a correction later, that's fine. The key is getting your application in now.
Next to getting your application in as soon as possible, the next most important consideration is to ensure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid correctly. The FAFSA is the single document the federal government uses to determine your eligibility for federal, state, and local student aid eligibility, and your place in line is determined by the date stamped on your accepted application. If your application is incomplete, incorrect, or illegible, it will be returned to you for corrections and your re-submitted application will go to the bottom of the pile. So, when you fill out the FAFSA make sure you fill it out right the first time.
The bottom line here is that the pool of Federal Financial Aid money is limited. If you are interested in receiving financial aid, you need to file early, and you need to file correctly: don't and you may find yourself out in the parking lot looking for change to get your degree.