What is the FAFSA? FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.”   Completing this application is the first step to securing financial aid for college.

Who should complete the FAFSA? Any student who needs financing (grants or student loans) to pay for college should start by completing the FAFSA.

When should seniors complete the FAFSA?   Seniors and college students should complete the FAFSA (or renewal FAFSA for returning students) as soon as possible after January 1. It can be completed online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.

For the 2017-2018 school year, students will be able to apply as early as Oct. 1, 2016, using 2015 tax information. The new October deadline will be a permanent change going forward.

What information is needed to complete the FAFSA?

Students and parents should gather the following information before completing the FAFSA:

  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (Note: You may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)
  • An FSA ID to sign electronically.

What happens once the FAFSA is completed?

If you complete the online form on the FAFSA website, it should be processed within 3-5 days and you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR summarizes the information provided on your FAFSA, so be sure to check it for accuracy. The SAR also contains your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is what determines the student’s eligibility for a Pell Grant.

Once the FAFSA is processed, your student’s SAR will be sent to the colleges your student indicated on the FAFSA. The colleges will use the SAR to determine your student’s eligibility for federal and nonfederal student aid. The college is responsible for creating an award package. Your student should contact the financial aid office at any school he or she is applying to in order to learn how to apply for financial aid at that school.

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Writing a successful college application essay

The essay portion of the college application is the best place to show the school of your choice why you belong on their campus and what you will be able to contribute to the student body. The test scores and grades that you have studied for over the years will certainly qualify you for a school, but once the admissions officers are looking at your application, what will they see? Let your personality shine through in its best light with these tips:

First, read through all of the essay questions for all of your applications—do you see any common themes? Colleges often ask the same types of questions, so don’t be afraid to reuse the same basic essay where it is applicable, and tailor it to each school to ensure that you are clearly answering the question asked.

Next, get writing! Even if you can’t think of a perfect answer to the essay question, start writing anyway. Write about your pets, your favorite teacher, or anything that you are passionate about. Sometimes, just getting words flowing is the hard part, so get going, and then you can revise. Don’t worry about length, spelling or grammar to start—just get your idea out in full. A first draft should never be the final draft.

Once the first draft is written, take a break. Give yourself a day to two weeks off—depending on how far out your essay is due. Read other essays or a good book to come back fresh with good writing in your head.

Then, revise. A few times. Pull out your dictionary and a grammar guide and go back through your essay to start polishing it. Have a trusted adult read through it for you to help you edit for both grammar and content. Ask them to help ensure that the essay truly sounds like you, above all else.

Each campus has an admissions office trying to bring a host of student personalities and perspectives into the school so don’t be afraid to show yours!

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Five tips for conquering college recommendation season

If you are receiving a lot of requests for recommendations, a little structure may help you streamline the requests more efficiently.

Create a checklist
Students should be prepared with all pertinent information when asking for a recommendation. Ask them to have a folder ready when they formally ask and post your requirements publically so your students know what to bring.

Decide what information is the most valuable to you, and use this to create your “Recommendation Request Checklist”. This could include any of the following: a transcript, resume, list of colleges that they’re applying to, the personal statement they’ll be sending in, stamped envelopes (if applicable), and deadlines for recommendations.

Set your maximum number of letters
Writing a good recommendation letter takes time. Help yourself and your students by deciding how many letters you can do this year, and stick to it. This allows you to write better recommendations for those you do accept.

Require two or three weeks notice
It’s recommended that students give their advisors between two and four weeks advanced warning for a recommendation, but you should set a time frame that you feel comfortable with.

Be honest
If you cannot promise a strong recommendation, be honest with the student. It could be that you already have reached your maximum number of letters, or you just don’t know them well enough, but you may have to say no to some students. Help them identify a teacher, coach or other mentor that could speak on their behalf.

Solicit information
A streamlined process can help clear the way for writing time. When you agree to write on a student’s behalf, have three forms ready: a self-assessment form, a teacher information form, and a parent questionnaire. Once the student has them completed and returns them, you’ll have a well-rounded view of the student and specific talking points to smooth out your writing process.

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Fund your way: Five scholarship search sites for college-bound students

If you’re a college-bound senior researching the cost of attending your school of choice, you are likely aware that the cost of attending college has gone up dramatically in the past decade, and there is no sign of reduction in the near future. Education is no longer something most students and their families can easily achieve without monetary help, which is why knowing how to get the most out of scholarships and financial aid is more critical than ever.

The good news is, students and their parents looking for financial aid are not without options. Knowing where to go for reliable financial aid and credible scholarships is one of the first things you’ll want to do in determining what options you want to consider to help pay for college.

In an effort to help you get started with a few options available online, we have provided a breakdown of five leading financial aid websites that can guide you along the way. Though this is not a comprehensive list, each of the options below has been included on its own merit and should be investigated fully to ensure it fits your needs.

This site functions as something like a video game where you earn points for overcoming obstacles or reaching new levels of achievement. Students parlay scholastic and extracurricular successes into micro-scholarships, then subsequently cash in at a Raise.me college upon acceptance and confirmation of attendance. The “savings” process for students can begin as early as 9th grade, leaving ample time to accrue valuable dollars for continued education.

Not only for students, Raise.me also provides starter kits for educators and updates for parents and relatives. Raise.me is free for students and high schools.

Tuition Funding Sources (TFS) allows users to search for various scholarships and research student loan options. One notable feature is the “Scholarship of the Day” listing, which provides a new scholarship posting everyday for various backgrounds and education and career goals. Be sure to follow TFS on social media to stay current on what new scholarships might interest you. Registration on the site is free, and it takes only minutes to get started.

For treasure seekers looking to fine-tune the scholarship hunt, Scholarship Monkey can offer just that by allowing users to narrow their search by three categories: personal profile, keyword, or type of scholarship. The site’s variety of search possibilities will allow you to create a wide or narrow filter according to preferences. Scholarship Monkey also publishes “Latest Awards and Contests” where students can enter various drawings and sweepstakes for chances to win money for college.

Students looking for a scholarship industry veteran need not look any further than Scholarships.com. This site has enjoyed more than 17 years of service, helping students find the financial aid that’s right for them.

Scholarships.com’s database is updated daily and boasts a sizable roster, making options plentiful for students of all kinds. Despite its vast database, the site manages to keep registration and search relatively simple, yielding a windfall of resources for students and educators alike.

bigfuture by The College Board
Not relegated to scholarships, bigfuture by The College Board also helps students locate different types of financial aid and internships from more than 2,200 programs, totaling almost $6 billion. The scholarship information distilled on the site is based on the College Board’s Annual Survey of Financial Aid Programs, a survey of more than 1,200 scholarship sponsoring organizations that is unique to this site.

Admittedly, the process of searching and applying for financial aid can be a time-consuming process, but it is one that is worth the reward.

In order to properly finance your college experience, it’s important to establish a game plan with the resources at our disposal. Whether it is a recommendation from a friend or something you learned from this blog, use all available resources to find the best scholarship or financial aid options to fit your needs.

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Master the scholarship application process

College is an excellent investment — you acquire valuable knowledge about the world, set yourself up for a career, and give your parents bragging rights for eternity – though it may cost quite a bit.

Now imagine that you could get someone else to pay for some — or all — of your college journey. You can.

Free websites like Tuition Funding Sources (TFS) allows students to search for scholarships based on their personal goals and interests. TFS, exclusively sponsored by Wells Fargo, has made the process of finding and applying for scholarships easy. On their site, you’ll find more than $41 billion dollars worth of available funds — all with no application fees. Plus, when you create a profile, TFS will help you find scholarships that match with your talents and background. You can even mark your favorites as you hunt and come back to them later.

As you go through the college scholarship process, keep in mind:

  • Write a couple of amazing essays, then refine and reshape them to order — You want to apply for hundreds of scholarships, but how will you write hundreds of essays? You won’t. Most scholarships operate around a few themes (leadership skills, who inspires you, an obstacle you’ve overcome). Write a few essays, then customize them to perfectly match the award(s) you seek.
  • Remember that your story is remarkable, valuable, and full of merit — Don’t discount your personal story. Let’s say you live in a single-parent household; the time you spend cooking meals, babysitting, and generally contributing to your environment shows commitment, integrity, and leadership. And those are precisely the qualities many scholarship committees are looking for. So do a little self-discovery, find out what makes you special, and write to it.
  • The biggest obstacle is self-limitation — You may only win a few scholarships that you apply for, but you won’t win any that you don’t apply for. Cast a wide net and keep trying to score those scholarship dollars.
  • Little amounts really add up — Big money scholarships are very alluring — obviously. But for every $20,000 prize, there are thousands and thousands of smaller awards that receive far fewer applicants. And those hundred-dollar chunks can pay for text books, fees, parking, and other expenses you’d love to get for free. Collect enough of those, and you’ve even got tuition covered.
  • Get an editor — Remember that professionals are reviewing every application you send in, and they’re looking for a student who takes his or her future seriously. Show them you’re the right choice: Use spell check and have someone proofread your papers. Find an adult who wants to help you — whether it’s a parent, teacher, or mentor. Don’t hit ‘submit’ until they’ve signed off on your pieces for flow, grammar, and completeness.
  • Set a goal and stick to it — Did you know it’s recommended that students apply to four or five scholarships EACH WEEK during junior and senior years? Initially, it sounds like a lot. But once you get started and find your groove, it will become another part of your weekly routine. You can also see this as a great exercise in time management, which will be clutch once you actually get to college.
  • Scholarship committees are looking for leaders — You don’t have to be class president or team captain to have great leadership skills. Maybe you volunteer in the community, take an active role in your religious organization, or have a job that requires extra responsibility. Hone in on your own inspirational leadership qualities and craft your letters around them.
  • Don’t know your career path? No problem. — You can find, and apply for, thousands of career-specific scholarships if you already know what you want to do for a career. But nobody expects you to have it figured out yet. There are scholarships for everything from background and hobbies to academics and even zombie preparedness, so use what you do know. Looking for inspiration? Tuition Funding Sources has an assessment quiz that can help guide your talents toward scholarships and careers that you might be interested in.
  • Mind your deadlines — It sounds pretty obvious, but missing the deadline on a great scholarship is an avoidable, and common, mistake. TFS makes it extremely simple to keep track of your favorite scholarships so they don’t slip through the cracks. Mark calendars, set reminders, and turn those applications in on time.
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Five ways to help your student prepare for scholarships

Your student’s junior year of high school is all about doing the prep work for college. Planning for scholarships is an important element of college planning that can start early on during junior year. As a parent, there are several things you can do to help:

  1. Be a sounding board. Your student may just need to talk about the whole concept of paying for college. They may not know where to start when thinking about managing the cost of college–you can help them understand the big picture and how scholarships can help. Just answering questions and providing insight can be a big help as they take on the task of securing scholarships.
  2. Which scholarships make sense? Scholarships are not just for star athletes and straight-A students. Help your student evaluate their activities, interests, as well as their commitment to volunteerism and community service. Then, encourage your student to explore scholarship options both through their school counselor’s office as well as online scholarship databases like Tuition Funding Sources.
  3. Help them figure out requirements. What does it take to get a scholarship anyway? Every scholarship’s requirements are different. When your student identifies a scholarship that seems like a good fit, take some time to look over the requirements together. If your student will be applying for a number of scholarships, it can help to create a chart or other way of organizing a list of scholarships, requirements and deadlines. Listing out the requirements of each scholarship can help your student get focused and determine which ones really are a good fit and are worth the time and energy to pursue.
  4. Highlight what makes them interesting. Part of what helps secure a scholarship is standing out from the crowd. We can all have a hard time seeing ourselves as others see us, and it can be tough to peg what makes your accomplishments unique. You can help your student determine what activities and achievements are important to highlight in pursuit of scholarships.
  5. Help them make decisions. Applying for scholarships can involve a lot of decision-making: where to look for scholarships, which ones to apply for, who to ask for a recommendation, what to include in the essay, etc. While your student ultimately should take the lead on scholarship applications, your guidance and advice can be helpful as they work through this process that’s undoubtedly new to them.
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Who’s in your corner? Asking for letters of recommendation

If this is your first time applying to college, the term “letter of recommendation” may sound like a foreign tongue to you. Not to worry! In this list, we break down everything you need to know about letters of recommendation as they relate to your college application process:

What is a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is exactly what it sounds like—a letter from a respected figure that recommends you as an applicant to prospective colleges. In this part of the college application process, a teacher or other trusted adult of your choice explains to admissions officers why you should be admitted based on merits of character, drive, and academic/extracurricular achievement. Colleges typically ask for two or three of these letters.

Who should write my letter of recommendation?
Who writes your letter of recommendation is up to you, but ideally, the person you choose should be a) some type of authority figure like a teacher, mentor or school counselor and/or b) someone who can speak to what truly makes you unique as a student and member of the community. If you are well acquainted with a certain teacher at your school, this is probably the best person to ask. If you are not particularly close to any of your teachers, that’s okay! In this case, try to pick the teacher from a class in which you excel. He/she should be able to write a recommendation that not only speaks to your academic achievement, but your in-class behavior, which demonstrates an element of character college admissions officers are looking for.

How do I ask someone to write my letter?
Asking someone to write your letter of recommendation may seem intimidating, but writing letters of recommendation is part of a high school teacher’s job (and one they often enjoy). Some high schools have an established system through which students can ask for letters of recommendation. If your school has this, you should follow that protocol, as this is probably the system that works best for your teachers. If your school doesn’t have this system, be sure to ask your teacher well in advance of deadlines in order to give him/her time to write a good letter.

If there are certain talents or personality traits you are trying to highlight in your application, it might be helpful to mention them to the teacher. That being said, you cannot dictate the contents of your letter. Every teacher is entitled to write whatever makes the most sense in his/her experience with you as a student. If a teacher you ask says no, don’t be discouraged! They might be too busy and may be able to recommend someone else in the school who can advocate for you more strongly.

How many letters should I send?
It is always best to send the maximum amount of letters suggested by the college. As a rule, it will not help your application to send extra letters, or letters that otherwise do not follow the standard format requested by the school. If you are concerned certain traits may not be highlighted in your letters of recommendation, take time in your essays to highlight these traits. Creativity is always a plus when writing your essays, but be sure to do so within application guidelines.

You probably won’t have the chance read your letters of recommendation before your teachers send them off. However, if you’ve followed these instructions closely, rest assured whatever they send will represent you well in the eyes of admissions boards.

After all, once those letters are sent, you’ll have more important things to focus on, like figuring out financial aid and choosing the right pair of shoes to go with your cap and gown.

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Five tips for students on the college search

Location vs. class size? Major vs. options? Home vs. far away from home, please? Students have a lot to consider when thinking about colleges. From the philosophical to the financial, “where am I going next?” is top of mind for most juniors and seniors, and you’re just the guide to help them navigate it. Use these resources and thought-starters for students seeking the perfect college home:

See how their choices really stack up. Here’s a handy college selection tool you can use with students. Just answer questions about what they’re looking for, and voila! It pulls from a list of 4,627 schools to find their best fits. Then it lets you compare them against one another to better understand each school’s pros and cons.

Don’t be afraid to break away from the pack. College is a time of massive change. That can be very intimidating for some students, and it makes sense they’ll want the stability of friends or significant others around when they land in a new environment. But is that familiar comfort what’s truly important when choosing a college?

Remind students that the world is more connected now than it’s ever been. That means relationships can last even if they attend different colleges than their loved ones.

In a perfect world, what’s outside of their window? What kind of surrounding are they really after? Maybe having the option to go hiking in a forest or skiing on a nearby mountain would make non-study hours a time to recharge. Or maybe they want to get lost in a big city and spend their downtime people-watching. What if it’s a small town vibe with strong ties to its college that makes the student happiest? Whichever they choose, these things matter and help inform a larger college experience.

What’s their most important college takeaway? Maybe the answer is as simple as “a job.” Or maybe they want the freedom to think differently, the opportunity to do in-depth research, or something that translates into an immediately useful skill.

The world keeps spinning if you don’t get in. Disappointment is, well, disappointing. But learning to cope and bounce back from it is a great lesson to learn early on. Life rewards people who can roll with the punches, so remind students to be flexible with their college selections and keep an open mind during the application process.

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Four ways to help your senior secure scholarships

Senior year is when college starts to get real for many students. As they start digging into the details, the importance of securing scholarship money may become clearer. Though they need to take the lead in the search, there are several things you can do to help:

  • Steer them to smart places to search. Beginning a scholarship search can be confusing if your student doesn’t know quite where to start. Help kick things off by steering your student toward online scholarship search engines. A great place to begin is Tuition Funding Sources (TFS). The TFS website allows students to search for scholarships based on their personal goals and interest, plus it provides information on student loans and other forms of financial aid.
  • Help organize the search. Applying for a lot of different scholarships can help your student increase their chances at free money, but it can also lead to confusion if they don’t stay organized. As a parent, this is the perfect place to lend a hand, by suggesting they keep a calendar or spreadsheet of scholarships including deadlines and requirements for each. That way they can stay on top of their applications at a glance.
  • Talk about recommendations. Your student may have to secure recommendations for their scholarship applications. Talk with them about which adults might be appropriate to write letters of recommendation. Remind them to ask for the recommendation well in advance of when they’ll need it. And that they can send a polite reminder several days ahead of that deadline. Let your student know that’s it’s a good idea to write a sincere thank-you note to anyone who took the time to write a recommendation for them. Teaching students to follow up with people in this way is a great skill to carry into their adult lives.
  • Highlight what makes your student interesting. Part of what helps secure a scholarship is standing out from the crowd. We can all have a hard time seeing ourselves as others see us, and it can be tough to peg what makes your accomplishments unique. You can help your student determine what activities and achievements are important to highlight in pursuit of scholarships.
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Ten things millennials can do to build credit

66 percent of Millenials expect their personal finance situations to improve over next year compared to 48 percent of the population. Keep the momentum going, Millenials! Know your credit limits and don't make late payments. From Wells Fargo's "How America Buys and Borrows" survey conducted in June 2015. The sample includes more than 3,000 American adults ages 18 to 65.When you think of the term “student loan”, does the word “investment” also cross your mind?

If so, you’re not alone. In a recent survey1, conducted in June 2015, 84 percent of millennials said they believe a student loan is an investment.

Even better, that’s not the only optimism millennials are feeling regarding their finances and the future.

According to the third “How America Buys and Borrows” survey, which asked nearly 2,000 American adults ages 18 to 65 about their attitudes and perceptions of the current economy, financial situations and understanding of credit, millennials, ages 18-35, are the most optimistic about their finances.

  • Looking ahead, 66 percent of millennials feel their personal financial situation will improve, compared to 48 percent of the general population.
  • Nearly a third of millennials say they plan to buy a new home in the next three years, compared to 19 percent of their general population counterparts.
  • 28 percent of millennials rate their current financial situation favorably, compared to 24 percent of the general population.
  • Millennials are most likely to be in the process of refinancing their mortgage or buying an investment property, vacation home or new home for themselves.

This is all fantastic data that reflects strong optimism on the part of you—America’s youngest adult consumers. Yet despite this optimism, only half of millennial say they know where to go to learn about credit and how it works, compared to 55 percent of the general population.

Developing good credit habits early in life is important because those good habits will serve you well over a lifetime. Strong credit helps with more than borrowing. It can factor into everything from renting an apartment and getting a cell phone, to landing a job. Lenders, landlords, utility providers, and employers can all review credit reports when making decisions. If you’re one of the millennials that is planning to buy a home, you will get a first-hand look at how credit plays a role in determining interest rates when it comes time to secure a home loan.

As you know, there are a lot of benefits to having good credit. Here are ten simple tips to build credit and learn more about credit management. By practicing good habits and learning about credit, you can reach your financial goals.

  1. Monitor your credit regularly – Make sure you stay on top of your credit history and check all three credit bureaus
  2. Know your credit limits – Avoid being close to or maxing out your credit limits, which may negatively affect your credit score.
  3. Know that good scores typically equal good interest rates – Remember: Better credit scores may get you better credit interest rates.
  4. Do make on-time payments – Pay on time. Missing a payment may negatively impact your credit score. If you have trouble making your payments on-time, be sure to contact your lender right away.
  5. Know your debt-to-income ratio – Since lenders look at the amount of debt you have compared to your monthly income, try to keep your debt-to-income ratio under 35 percent.
  6. Consider a college or secured credit card – A secured credit card or a college credit card may be a good way to start building credit.
  7. Pay down highest interest rates first – When trying to pay down your debt, it’s recommended to pay down your accounts with the highest interest rate first.
  8. Live within your means – Set a budget and live within your means so you don’t overextend yourself financially.
  9. Pay more than the minimum – When possible, pay more than the minimum amount due on your credit accounts, which helps you pay down debt faster and can improve your credit score.
  10. Set up account and autopay alerts – Set up email and text alerts, as well as autopay, to help ensure that you pay your bills on time and build a positive credit history.

For more information about ways to establish or improve credit visit Wells Fargo’s online Smarter Credit™ Center or enjoy free courses available from our Hands on Banking® financial education program.

1 Wells Fargo’s “How America Buys and Borrows” survey conducted in June 2015. The sample includes more than 3,000 American adults ages 18 to 65.

Picture of Stephanie Grant Stephanie Grant is a communications consultant for the Consumer Lending Group (CLG) and is responsible for strategic programs and content development, including CLG corporate communications social media initiatives. The Consumer Lending Group communications team drives internal and external communications for all business lines within the Home Lending and Consumer Credit Solutions organizations, including: mortgage, home equity, credit card, auto lending, student lending, personal lines and loans, and retail services.

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