The cost of attending college does not only include tuition and fees you pay directly to the school, but also basic living expenses you need to support yourself. Your financial aid package will consider the full cost of attendance and account for the fact that you need to use either your income or financial aid to live on.
Applying for Aid
In order to receive financial aid, you must fill out an application every year you need it. The main application is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which you must submit to the federal government. Use your bank account statements and previous year's tax return to fill it out. You also need to provide your parents' financial information if you are a dependent student or your spouse's financial information if you are married. Submit the application in late winter or early spring preceding the school year. Your school might also have a supplementary application that you need to submit to the financial aid office.
Financial Aid Package
Your school will send you a financial aid award letter in late spring, or if you submitted your application on the late side, one to two months after you submit it. The award letter will detail the amount you and your family are expected to contribute and the financial aid that the school and government are providing to meet your financial need. The total of your family contribution and financial aid award should be the full cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, books, supplies and basic living expenses for on or off campus room, board, transportation and personal expenses.
How Much Money?
The amount of money you get back from the financial aid office depends on what your family contribution is. In general, your financial aid awards, including grants, scholarships and loans, go directly to the school. After paying your tuition, fees and other charges the school bills, the school returns the rest to you for use on your living expenses. If your family contribution exceeds the amount of your living expenses, all of your financial aid will go toward the school bill and you will use the family contribution for living expenses. To calculate how much money you will get back, subtract your school's bill for the semester from the amount of financial aid you are scheduled to get that semester. If the result is negative, you will need to pay the school instead of getting money back.
Getting Your Money
Most schools distribute financial aid checks sometime between a week before the semester begins and two weeks after the semester begins. Check with your financial aid office to find out when to expect your money so you can budget accordingly. One way to get your money faster is to sign up for the check to be directly deposited into your bank account. In addition, some schools that distribute financial aid on the late side will allow you to get a small preliminary check when the semester begins to pay for your immediate living expenses.