If you think your student’s college financial aid paperwork reads like a Greek 101 exam, you are not alone. Sorting through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form can be cumbersome at best and an incomprehensible nightmare at worst.

If you haven’t filed a FAFSA yet, get on it. This form must be completed if you want your son or daughter to be eligible for federal and state aid. A lot of aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so the sooner you file the better.

After filing, you will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR. Your SAR is also available online at the FAFSA website.

This report summarizes the information submitted on the FAFSA and lists your expected family contribution, or EFC, which is the amount of money the government expects your family to pay in college education costs. The EFC is used to determine your student’s eligibility for federal student aid.

Be sure to be sitting down when you open that envelope; the money you’ll have left after the EFC is deducted won’t be too far from the poverty thresholds determined by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Check your numbers

The first thing to do is make sure the information on the SAR is complete and correct. In case of an error, resubmit the form to the central processor as soon as possible. Corrections will go through in a couple of weeks, and each college that your student applied to will have access to the updated information.

Folks who estimated their earnings may need to resubmit the form if their guesses were too far off. A quick glance at your W-2 form should tell you how close your estimate came. Most folks shouldn’t have a problem since their final pay stub of the year shows how much they’ve earned.

Acceptance and aid timetable

Colleges and universities start sending out admission acceptance letters in March and financial aid award notices come close behind. Expect a financial aid award letter to arrive within two weeks of an acceptance letter. Many schools send out acceptance and aid notifications on the same day.

In a financial aid package a college or university will try to make up the difference between the cost of attending their school and a family’s expected contribution as spelled out in a SAR report. Some succeed better than others. Three schools with similar costs may offer very different financial aid packages.

Much depends on a student’s academic credentials, a family’s financial need and how much aid is available from a school. Private schools tend to have deeper pockets than state schools. Many middle-class families may find themselves in a tough spot. They have too much money to qualify for need-based aid, but too little money to cover college costs on their own. So parents or students — or both — take out loans.

If your child is determined to go to an Ivy League school, don’t despair. Following Princeton’s lead in 2001, all of the Ivies — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania — have adopted “need-blind” acceptance and most offer grants (which do not have to be paid back) instead of loans to qualified students.

Next steps

A bit of a waiting game goes on during this whole process. First you wait a few weeks for that SAR to arrive. Then you wait a few more weeks for those acceptance letters and the financial aid awards to trickle in.

All candidates should receive an admissions notification by around April 1 and financial aid packages by mid-April. Most schools give applicants until May 1 to select a school. Students should make use of this down time to seek out and apply for scholarships.

Experts point out that while SAR reports may make parents sweat a bit, it’s the financial aid notices that throw some families into an all-out panic.

The good news is that you do have a little bit of leverage if your teen has been accepted at a number of schools. You may be able to negotiate a better aid package by mentioning to School A all that School B is willing to do for you.

PROFILE alternative

Another financial aid application is called PROFILE. It’s a service of the College Board, a not-for-profit membership association whose stated mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity. The College Board comprises more than 5,000 schools, colleges, universities and other educational organizations, and each year serves more than 7 million students and their parents.

Around 600 colleges, universities, professional schools and scholarship programs use the PROFILE form as an application for nonfederal student aid. If you’re applying to one of the schools or scholarship programs that use the PROFILE application, you should register online.

There’s a $9 registration fee, plus a $16 fee for every college or program you want to send it to.

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