Last updated: July 7, 2013
Michael J. Albano
The financial aid application process holds a unique position in every prospective law student’s heart. No other aspect of the application process stimulates such a wide array of feelings; fear, confusion, frustration, happiness, relief and hope, just to mention a few. Many prospective students, much like myself, find themselves in the midst of a love-hate relationship when dealing with the anomaly that is financial aid. We love it for its potential in helping us to finance our legal education. We hate it because the application process presents itself as an amorphous entity lacking any definitive rules or framework. Despite its shortcomings, there exists ways in which one can tackle the process that do not require a bottle of aspirin or a handle of liquor. As someone who recently traveled this long and tedious road, I intend the following to serve as a small guide on how to successfully handle the confusions and pressures that accompany the financial aid process.
Applying for financial aid may not be a daunting a task as you might think. Everybody has heard the war stories of lost, incorrect or half-filled out forms, but this does not have to happen to you. If one approaches the process in a serious and organized manner, he/she will discover that by following three basic rules the process will go smoother than expected. The three keys (or 3P’s as I like to call them) to applying for financial aid are preparation, punctuality, and patience. Although simple, and hardly earth shattering, I guarantee that these three basic concepts will spare you the gray hairs many find while applying.
By preparation I essentially mean organization; organization that begins before you actually physically fill out forms and continues until your financial aid awards and loans have been awarded to you. If you invest a little bit more time at the beginning it will save you a lot of time in the end. The first step is to make a master list of all the schools you are applying to, the phone and fax numbers of their financial aid office (many schools have separate offices for admission and financial aid), all the forms they require and the dates by which they must be received. This provides you with a checklist that will soon become your best friend during the process. A word of caution; remember that there are more forms than just the FAFSA or Law Acess Group. Many schools require their own forms and your best bet is to call the particular school’s financial aid office to ascertain which forms they require.
The next step lies in gathering all of your financial information, including tax forms, W-2's, undergraduate financial aid awards, parental tax information and so on. The quicker and more comprehensively you arrange these materials, the easier it will be for you to get those forms out on time. Although it sounds easier than it actually is, do not panic. For some, it may be overwhelming when dealing with all of these financial documents. My word of advice is seek help from parents (they have years of experience and an unbelievable tolerance for the tedious nature of this process) or ask a friend, preferably the one who thinks that Investment Banking is the ultimate in career choices. If these options are futile, try calling the financial aid office of your undergraduate university or the help lines provided by FAFSA and Law Access included in the table at the conclusion of this article.
When dealing with private loans research is key. Many institutions offer private education loans; American Express, the Access Group, Law Loans and Law Achiever are just a few. Most will contact you by mail with brochures and applications, but do not be quick in deciding. Read and analyze the fine print when dealing with such brochures. Fees and interest rates vary for each and one may be more suitable for your particular needs. You have most likely invested a lot of time and effort already so put the extra time in when dealing with private loads and do the research.
The final word of advice for preparation is carefully track the forms you receive and the forms you send out. Match them to your master list and be sure to jot down the dates they were received and the date you sent them out. This will help you, especially when a law school informs you that they have yet to receive a form you know you already sent, but they insist that you did not and you wrote down that you did but they refuse...sorry, when I speak from experience I tend to ramble. Also you must keep all paperwork in an organized fashion in one place. The worse part of applying was misplacing that one W-2 or financial aid award that I needed to complete a form. If you can avoid jumble paperwork, you will avoid the headaches it brings. Another way of avoiding the popular financial aid office “Phantom Form” syndrome (forms that seem to vanish in mid-air) is to utilize the current web applications offered by the Access Group and FAFSA. User friendly and much quicker, these web site applications are done with secure servers and processing is much quicker. Also on the web will be many valuable tip sites posted by schools and other institutions. If you perform a keyword search using “FAFSA” will be find many of these helpful sites. The web site addresses for both sites appear at the conclusion of this article.
Getting your financial forms in on time can be just as important as getting your admissions application in on time. Many law schools award financial aid on a rolling admissions basis meaning, simply, the quicker they receive your forms the better chance you have of receiving more money. Most deadlines are very reasonable, yet some seem a little too early for no apparent reason. For instance, some schools recommend the FAFSA by April lst, yet many people do not receive all of the necessary tax forms with enough time to complete this form by April 1st. When I called the FAFSA office they told me that I must complete the form to the best of my ability, than request a correction form to adjust the numbers when I finished all the tax information for that year. My response was along the lines of “So you want me to make numbers up the first time around and then, since you know most people do not have all their tax forms by April 1st, request a correction sheet and waste my time refilling out forms that should probably be due April 15th in the first place?” Her response “Yes!” Although this story may possess the slightest bit of exaggeration I feel you get the point; to play the game, no matter how stupid it may sound, you must play by their rules and that means getting your forms in on time.
By having your applications in the financial aid office on time, you do not only increase your chances of receiving a more generous award, you also increase the likelihood that you will receive your funds on time. This goes not only for federal and school loans, but private loans as well. The later you send in your forms, the lower the percentage of likelihood that you will receive the funds on time. For instance, Georgetown University Law Center informs applying students that if the loan application is completed in their office by May 29th, there is a 95+% chance the student will receive funds on time. However, if the application is not completed until July 15th, that likelihood drops to 50%; the very reason punctuality plays a crucial role in obtaining the best financial package possible.
We all know that nothing ever goes as smoothly as we might hope, especially when it has to do with money. That is why it is important to remember that if anything does go wrong, you must act as quickly as possible to fix it. If a mistake is made on your part and there is a chance you will not be able to send a particular form in on time, let the school’s financial aid office know immediately. Please do not procrastinate, I did it and it hurt my chances at receiving the best package possible from a particular school and I do not want to see you make the same mistake. Let the school know as soon as possible if you feel a deadline will not be met. Financial aid offices, although often the bane of the student’s existence, have many useful functions and allowing you a little bit of leeway, in my experience, is one of them.
Ah, here we are, the most important virtue one must possess when applying for financial aid. As I said before, you must play by the rules of those who are shelling out the money, despite the fact that these rules often do not make sense. If there was one piece of advice I wish someone imparted upon me before I set out on this journey it would be the realization that much of what goes on during this process makes little sense (at least seemingly) or seems backwards. You must prepare yourself for this and keep a clear head when you run into some of these financial aid idiosyncracies. If you dive head first into the process without realizing that at times the waters may be a little rough, you will only drown in frustration. However, if you throw in a life jacket of patience it may not necessarily be smooth sailing, but you will surely stay afloat.
What, you may ask, is so frustrating about the process? Well, try this on for size. When you apply for FAFSA you can only include six law schools to which this information can be sent. I applied to 12 schools, therefore I needed to file a correction form on which I could include the next six. Why not allow me to apply for all twelve at once? They may have a reason, but it sure lacks logical reasoning. There is always the infamous “we never received the form that we never told you was necessary” bit. If you fail to remember something like that is possible, frustration will get the better of you.
The bottom line-go into it with a clear head and expect the worst while applying so as to avoid disappointment when it occurs. I do not mean this to frighten you, I just want to make sure you are mentally prepared for some of the frustrations that might occur. So remember, if you prepare, act punctually and remain patient, the road will be a lot smoother and the chances are you will find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.