Most people don’t tell you just how hard it is to pay for college. During my college admissions process, I got too wrapped up in the excitement of it all and didn’t think about how all that excitement was actually attached to a very large bill. Soon after, I found out all at once that financial aid is not only overwhelming but it can also be downright confusing. I figured out very quickly that I might need help, and fast.

I was offered a pretty decent financial aid package which included some grants and some loans.  I wasn’t happy about the loan offer because the last thing I wanted to do was to run up my debt.  My financial aid package outlined what university grants I was eligible for, what grants I could be eligible for from the government if I completed the necessary forms and loans I could borrow if I met all the eligibility criteria.

Some numbers seemed awfully high number, especially in the loan section, but your financial aid package is all the aid you are eligible to borrow for the year, not necessarily what you have to borrow. Learning this helped me breathe a little bit because I wanted to borrow as little as possible. I also learned the cost of attendance covers estimated living expenses, room and board, even if you have not decided you are 100% going to live on campus. Before I finalized any loans, I had to make a decision about my living situation since it was mentioned on the FAFSA, too!

I think colleges do this with the idea of being “better safe than sorry,” so you can make the best decision possible and make it with clarity on all of your potential costs. Here are a few things I learned that I hope are helpful to anyone approaching the financial aid process.

Research. I did a lot of research, and I guess that’s where it all begins.  You can never do too much research! Websites like FinAid helped me navigate the process a little more smoothly. Their calculators and useful articles helped me understand things I would not have well enough alone.

FAFSA. My first step was to complete a FAFSA which looks like the most confusing form on the planet, and just might live up to that name for most people. The FAFSA site imported my tax information to eliminate some of the human error when entering all the numbers the form asks for. This application helps to figure out if you are eligible for the federal PELL grant and other grants—who doesn’t love money for tuition that you don’t have to repay! Everyone should fill out the FAFSA.

Institutional Funds. I decided to contact my school about other forms they required in order to be considered for aid and even reached out to the Director of my major to see if there was anything that was available to students through the department directly. I knew this was a stretch, but I figured I might as well ask. Believe it or not, there was funding and I was offered a book grant!

Costs you can’t always get covered. I learned that even if you get a full-tuition scholarship, there are things that will not be paid for! Usually, those scholarships are meant for tuition only—not fees or even your dorm (room and board). I was aware that loan funding is something that is necessary for most students, including me, to get these extra covered.

Applying for loans. I didn’t think applying for loans would be as easy as it was. I looked over the application, master promissory note and entrance counseling and felt like I was prepared to do everything I needed to make sure I got all of the paperwork done on time. Although most students will choose to borrow with the Federal Direct Loan Program, there are also private lenders offering some incentives that were definitely worth considering. I thought about the fate of the National Student Loan Forgiveness Program hanging in the balance, so thought it might be beneficial to take a look at many other products and services offered. I learned some other student loan programs offer excellent rates, as well as deferments that rival the federal programs.

I hope reflecting on my experience makes it a little easier to navigate a system that often seems daunting and to be honest, terrifying! and I wish you best of luck in your financial planning for your upcoming year.