Now that 2013 has begun, Melanie Updike has a message for college-bound students and their parents: "Don't be afraid of FAFSA."
Updike, a college counselor at Perry Hall High School, said she has watched too many students wait until the last minute to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In Maryland, the deadline is March 1, although some colleges require the form be completed in February.
"It's a free application, so you should fill it out even if you don't expect to qualify to need-based aid. This form is used by many institutions to determine loans, scholarships and grants," Updike said.
And it's not only for those expecting to attend four-year colleges, she said. The form can also be used for grants, aid and scholarships to two-year colleges and trade schools.
While the form requests information about 2012 tax filings, it can be submitted with estimates based on tax information from 2011 and updated after your 2012 taxes are filed.
The form is filled out entirely online on a secure website run by the federal government. If you have all of your most recent financial information and personal identification information on hand, it could take about an hour to complete, she said.
"It depends on how good you are with that kind of thing. Of course, if you have questions, there is a help button on every single question," Updike said.
What else should be on the college-minded student's to-do list? Scholarships and school visits.
Extensive scholarship information, including dozens of links, is available on the Perry Hall High School website's scholarship page. Updike also urged students to take advantage of visiting potential colleges—seniors are allowed up to three excused absences for visits and potentially more if visiting out-of-state institutions.
With around 2,200 students, Perry Hall High School is the largest high school in Baltimore County.
Among the over 500 students who graduated in 2012, 46 percent entered four-year colleges, 38 percent entered two-year colleges, eight percent entered full-time employment, five percent entered technical schools and three percent entered military service, according to Updike.
Share your tips for navigating student aid in the comments. What did you do after graduating high school?