July 29, 2013 | Marcus Varner | Leave a comment It is not the high school pal with whom you decided to attend the same college. It is not the hot girl/guy you just met at orientation. And it’s definitely not that weird kid studying molecular biology while sitting in the drinking fountain. Nope, for the first couple weeks of your college experience, your school’s financial aid counselors are your best friend. If you’re going to make it through college without losing your sanity, worrying about how you’re going to pay for tuition and books-if you’re going to graduate from college without incurring a mountain of debt that you might not be able to pay back-forget about your classmates and your professors. Right now, you need some quality time at your financial aid office. Fear of the Financial Aid Office? Maybe it’s because we have a negative association with “going to the office” from our elementary and high school experience. Going to the office meant you’d been busted for something, deservedly so or not, and they were going to put you in detention, suspend you, call your parents, etc. The office was generally a very negative experience that we tried to avoid. Going into our college experience, maybe this negative association persists. That’s my own personal theory. But, for whatever reason, I can’t tell you how many people I meet, and how many people leave comments on this site, who have started college without talking to their financial aid office. My 20-year-old nephew just finished his initial training with the U.S. Marines and is now off active duty and looking to use his GI Bill by going to a local college. In a recent phone call, he started asking questions about how to use his GI Bill or other financial aid. He was thinking of taking out student loans to pay for the rest. So I tried to explain to him about scholarships and Pell grants, and he had a hard time believing that people were just willing to give away money that you didn’t have to pay back, as long as you stayed in school and took enough credits. A few minutes into our conversation it became obvious that help for my nephew was beyond my knowledge and that he needed the skills of his college’s financial aid office. So I asked him if he’d visited them yet. His response blew me away: “Nah, I didn’t have time.” My nephew was actively avoiding the financial aid office (which you have to visit if you’re going to get the Pell grants, scholarships, and Stafford loans for which you qualify) because it was too inconvenient. On this site, we get questions all the time that show people who are either unaware of or actively avoiding their college’s financial aid office. One commenter says, “I am currently in a college for accounting. Can you still help with grants that I don’t have to pay back?” Another asks, “I am already in school, and I wanted to know how to apply for grants for current students?” Newsflash for my nephew and anyone else who wants to answer the question of how to pay for college: financial aid offices are not the same as your high school office. No one else has the knowledge, the tools, or the authority that your financial office has to get you answers about how much you qualify for in grants, loans, or scholarships. Not your friends, not your parents, and definitely not our website. Financial Aid Goldmine So what’s so special about the financial aid office? In a few steps, they can help you figure out how you’re going to pay for your college education. Depending on how much tuition and fees are at your school and how money you qualify for, you could potentially have check in hand in a day or two. The whole process starts with you contacting the financial aid office. They will most likely request that you fill out a FAFSA to tell them what your living expenses are and how much you’ll be able to pay out of pocket. From this, a financial aid counselor will estimate your EFC (expected financial contribution) number. Basically, they then take your EFC number and try to fill in the gaps between how much school is going to cost and how much money you can contribute. They start with Pell grants and scholarships, since those are interest-free. Once they’ve done all they can with those, they look into subsidized student loans. If that still isn’t enough, they’ll try to cover the rest with unsubsidized student loans. This isn’t always a pleasant experience. Some financial aid counselors can seem like they were pulled straight from the DMV. But the process doesn’t take long, and you get a ton of peace of mind knowing exactly how you’re going to pay for college. You might even get some pleasant surprises along the way, such as finding out that you qualify for a scholarship that you didn’t know existed (true story). So, before you think about your first assignment, before you join the geocaching club, do yourself a favor and visit the financial aid office. It’s a great way to lessen your college stress. Besides, the counselors won’t bite… hard.