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Planning Your Future

From Early Decision To Financial Aid—4 Tips to Ace the College Application Process

What You Need to Know When Applying—and How to Save Money

It was November 1 of this year—the last day to submit an application for early decision to New York University. High school senior and aspiring filmmaker Susan Fetzer, from Central Pennsylvania, had been working on her online application for two months. With seven minutes to go before her 5 p.m. deadline, her computer froze as she uploaded her final NYU-mandated component—the media for her creative portfolio. After performing some panicked technological acrobatics, she broke through the glitch and the application went through.

As stressful as filling out the actual college application can be, that's just one part of the process—and maybe even the easiest. To give herself the best options in college admission, a student needs to navigate through several other processes and decisions. Doing due diligence will not only help set students on the right path to the quad, it can also help them save money.

Here are four tips to help the student prevail:

1. Know Your Admissions Options

Besides knowing when to apply to increase your odds of landing where you want, it's important for a student to apply to a range of "reach" schools that might be tough to get into but worth trying, "target" schools that seem like the right fit, and "safety" schools that seem very likely to accept the student, says Elissa Salas, CEO of the nonprofit College Track, a national college completion program that empowers students from underserved communities to graduate from college. [Chase is the Lead California Financial Services Partner for College Track.]

Once you've picked the schools, it's time to decide when and how to apply. There are four common types of admissions options:

Regular Decision: The traditional process for applying to college: The school posts an application deadline, and the applying student receives a decision. At many schools, those decisions are issued in late March.

Early Decision: Students apply in the fall, often by early November, and receive a decision within a few weeks. If accepted with a sufficient financial aid package, the student agrees to withdraw all applications from other colleges. Some colleges also offer a second round of early consideration for students who don't get into the first school they chose.

Early Action: Students apply in the fall (and/or in the early winter at some schools) and receive an admission decision within a few weeks. They're not obligated to attend the school, though, and have until spring to decide. This option can offer families more time to compare financial aid packages before deciding.

Rolling Admission: Applications are accepted and evaluated, and admission offers are sent out throughout the year until the college fills its available spaces.

These definitions are general, and individual schools can vary how they approach admissions from year to year. So it would be wise to review the college's admissions guidelines before applying. November and December remain peak times for those determined to pursue the early option. "Early college admission offers can come from Early Action and Early Decision," says Salas. "Early Action is a non-binding opportunity for a school to offer admission to a student who can decline the offer to pursue another college. Early Decision is a binding agreement."

2. Applying Early Might Help You Get In

For students who apply Early Decision, the admissions process is similar to those who apply Early Action. If accepted, as Salas points out, students are bound by an agreement to attend that school (and are unable to apply to any other schools). Not only does this save families hefty application fees, but—more importantly—opting for Early Decision can help a student stand out and improve his or her chances of being accepted, says Salas.

"Early application review pools are often much smaller than the regular decision pool and can reward students who are prepared to apply early," she says. "But if a student needs to rely on academic growth or test scores from later in the school year, he or she won't have that data to utilize in early applications."

As for Susan Fetzer, she's ranked first in her senior class and hopes this status will boost her over the other 60,000 applicants NYU expects this year. Still, her biggest concern is not whether she has the résumé to get into her school of choice, but how she and her parents are going to pay for it. Which is why she may want to . . .

3. Understand How Financial Aid Works

Every soon-to-be college student should be clear on the financial aid process, where financial support—if any—comes from and just how much they qualify to receive. “When schools build packages, they look at merit and need. Institutional aid can be reduced by being eligible for Federal student aid, though private schools have a lot more latitude," Salas says.

The completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) allows the U.S. Department of Education to determine a student's eligibility for federal aid. StudentAid.ed.gov provides detailed information about the FAFSA process and how to complete the application.

Of course, it's also important to explore the information that a school's financial aid office provides to applicants.

4. Don't Forget: The Fee Ride

With all the various fees, the college application process is but a small preview of college costs to come. In the case of the Fetzer family, they spent a total $163.50 just to apply to one school:

The application to NYU: $70

The CSS Financial Aid Profile: $25 for the first school, $16 for each additional school

The ACT exam with the writing component: $56.50 ($39.50 without the writing component), which includes sending the results to four schools ($12 for each additional school)

Upload fee for the required media for the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at NYU: $12

Remember these fees as you create your short list of schools. While applying to several schools can get pricey, there are options to reduce the cost.

Students who work with College Track qualify for waivers from the application fees in nearly every case, says Salas, adding, "We provide financial support if the application fee isn't waived. We don't want financial concerns keeping our students from having as many opportunities as possible."

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