Applying to college is a lot to handle, but nothing is as taxing as figuring out how to pay the bill.

Navigating the financial aid process solo is something many students have done before, and with a little guidance, there is no reason you can’t do it successfully too.

When cost is a major issue, your instinct may be to limit consideration to state schools, but do not rule out private colleges on price tag alone. Many offer generous financial aid packages that include merit-based scholarships and grants. And once you know the price tags of your target schools, you’ll be able to figure out what you can afford through a mix of scholarships, grants and federal and private student loans. 

Here’s what you need to know and do before you start your college applications.

1. Fill Out the FAFSA® 

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is necessary to be eligible for federal aid like grants and federal student loans and — in some cases — school-based and state aid. You may hear that your parents need to fill it out for you; however, you can definitely do it yourself. 

If you’re an independent student — which only applies if you meet one or more of these federal requirements — you won’t need your parents’ tax information. Note that these requirements are more specific than not living with your parents, your parents not claiming you on their taxes or your parents not contributing to your college education.  

Most students are considered dependent students and the FAFSA will ask for your parents’ income and for other details from their most recent tax return. In most cases, the FAFSA will auto-populate this info with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool; however, depending on when, where and how your parents filed their taxes, it may not. In that case, you may have to manually enter the information. If the tax information does not auto-populate or does so incompletely, ask your parents for their most recent tax return. If they are hesitant, make sure they understand that the FAFSA does not obligate them to pay for your education. If they do not want to provide their information, continue filling out the FAFSA on your own, and check the box that indicates you don’t have access to your parents’ information. 


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Should it come to this, Jamie Dickenson, owner of an educational planning service in Charleston, West Virginia and author of Too Smart for the Ivy League, recommends filing a letter of special circumstances with the financial aid offices of schools you are applying to. “Private universities will probably be able to work with you better than public universities, which are under federal- and state-mandated guidelines,” she says.

“Colleges are the second-largest source of tuition aid, second only to the government. So for most students, choosing which colleges to apply to is the most important phase of the admissions process.”

2. Target Schools Known for Their Scholarships and Aid Packages

Be strategic about applying to schools that have a reputation for offering generous aid packages, both merit- and need-based. “Colleges are the second-largest source of tuition aid, second only to the government,” says Debbie Schwartz, cofounder of Road2College. “So for most students, choosing which colleges to apply to is the most important phase of the admissions process.” 

To do this, look up colleges that offer the best financial aid packages early in your search. For free need-based financial aid, you can find lists at US News & World Report and Princeton Review. Also, consider prioritizing need-blind schools on your college list. These are schools that do not factor a student’s financial status into their admission decision. For merit-based aid, check out US News & World Report

Your high school counselor will be another resource to tap. They likely have financial aid office contacts at a range of schools and can offer insight into financial aid opportunities beyond what you’re able to research online.  

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3. Identify Scholarships You Can Apply to as Early as Possible

Private scholarships are sometimes pretty niche, targeting specific majors, genders, ages and special interests, but they are everywhere. Finding ones you’re eligible for will take time, but free sites like Discover that round up millions of scholarships help. You’ll want to start early; scholarship deadlines aren’t necessarily in sync with application deadlines, and they can be as early as a year before you begin college. And whatever you do, don’t be put off by scholarships worth less than $1,000. They’re usually not nearly as competitive, and they can add up. 

4. Consider Private Student Loans to Fill in Gaps

If between scholarships, grants and federal loans, you come up short, consider a private loan, which is funded through a private bank or lender. There are a lot of options, so you’ll want to choose wisely, and you may need to get a cosigner since many undergraduate students don’t qualify on their own.

Private student loans can have either a fixed-interest or a variable-interest rate, which can change based on the indexed rate, and is based on several factors, including your credit history (and your cosigner’s, if applicable). Like federal loans, private loans may offer in-school deferment, but making monthly payments while you’re in school helps reduce the overall cost of the loan. Remember to read the fine print and compare loan terms, like rates, repayment options and other benefits to ensure the loan meets your financial situation. 

As overwhelming as being on your own can be, there are resources to help you figure it out. If you do your research, meet your deadlines and apply to colleges where you’re a strong candidate for aid, you should find yourself with plenty of school options come spring.

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017. 

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover Student Loans.