SACRAMENTO -- In talking to parents and high school seniors about paying for college, certified college counselor Marilyn van Löben Sels said she finds herself repeating two messages.
Yes, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, regardless of your income. And, no, you shouldn't wait for the March 2 deadline.
"We are always on a mission of stressing the importance of everyone filling out the FAFSA," van Löben Sels said.
She said some families erroneously think they shouldn't fill out the FAFSA because their annual income is too high to qualify for need-based financial aid, such as the Pell Grant.
But, van Löben Sels said, somemerit-based scholarships require the FAFSA, as do low-interest federal student loans, work study and some individual college awards.
Q: How difficult is it to fill out the FAFSA?
A: It's not that difficult. It helps to be organized and to have things on hand. You need Social Security numbers, tax forms this goes for students and parents.
The FAFSA is two parts, one for student information and one for parent information. It takes one to two hours if you have your papers. I've had some people finish it in 45 minutes.
Q: Are there any tips you can share?
A: The trick is, the early bird gets the worm for financial aid. Take your 2011 tax information and fill it into the FAFSA now. Get your 2012 taxes done as soon as you can, and then there is a page on the website that allows you to update with 2012 numbers.
It's so important to get it in as soon as possible. Today would be great.
Q: Do you have to know what college your child will attend?
A: You can list up to 10 schools on the FAFSA. The question comes up: "Oh, but I applied to 12 schools, what do I do?" You list your top 10. When you get your Student Aid Report, you go to the FAFSA home page, take two schools off your list and put in the 11th and 12th schools, and it all works. You can update your FAFSA many times. That's how you add extra schools if you need to.
Q: Have you seen any trends in the types of questions parents ask?
A: I see real discouragement with the middle class. There is real concern with the economy the way it has been. People are worried about loan debt when their kids get out of college. The costs of colleges are really important in your decision for which college to go to, but it shouldn't be the deciding factor. You have to make sure the school is a good fit.
Q: What tips do you have for finding scholarships and deciding which to apply to?
A: There are so many scholarship websites out there, too: Finaid.org, Fastweb.com, Zinch.com, Meritaid.com, Collegeboard.org.
High schools are usually pretty good at posting scholarships on bulletin boards.
It's about locating them and staying organized. If it's a scholarship for $100 and it takes five hours to fill out, that's something to think about.
Q: Are there ways to be efficient with your time when applying for scholarships?A: After you go through the college application process, you may have two or three good essays that you can modify for scholarships. Many times with these applications, there are similar questions.
With scholarships, keep in mind the goals of the organization offering the scholarship and pick out things about you that work with that. You can recycle an essay and build on the idea. You don't want to do the exact same one unless it really fits.
Q: Is there any other advice you can offer?
A: You have to watch out for scams. There is the old saying of, "If it sounds too good to be true ... ."
There should never be a cost for applying for a scholarship.
Also, keep in mind that FAFSA.com costs $79. (It's a company offering assistance filing the FAFSA.) FAFSA.ed.gov is free.
Call The Sacramento Bee's Melody Gutierrez at (916) 326-5521.