With economic and educational uncertainty during the global pandemic, the financial aid process may seem overwhelming. But our advice hasn’t changed: It is never too early or too late to plan for college.

The class of 2021 should have the majority of their college applications completed and many have started receiving acceptance letters from some schools that they have applied to. Because of the extension of University of Michigan’s application deadline, the acceptance letters from U of M will be delayed to the middle of January.

If a college offers merit-based aid, students will learn at this at the time that they are accepted — and most students will not learn about financial need-based aid or private scholarships until late winter or early spring.

Your student should make sure that their FAFSA and CSS Profile (if required) have been filed and they should check their email or student portal to insure that there aren’t any pending items that are needed to complete their financial aid application process. Colleges are required to verify at least 30 percent of the FAFSAs (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) they receive — so make sure your student checks often for any requests they may get.

Nationally,more than $50 billion in scholarships is given away each year. It is important to check the website of the schools they have been accepted to — many have scholarships available that require an additional application to be submitted. The financial aid office is a great resource to learn more about scholarship and grant opportunities. Current college students should also reach out to their academic and financial advisor to learn about opportunities for existing students.

High school guidance counselors are the best source for local scholarships. Local scholarships are going to be easier to win than regional and national ones — and, because of the giving nature of our area, there are many to apply to. The local scholarships from Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation will be available in January — your student can research the scholarships at www.gtrcf.org. The Foundation awards more than $300,000 each year to local students.

Many free websites and apps offer scholarship search tools for students. Some of the most popular are www.fastweb.com, www.unigo.com/Scholarships, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search and http://home.myscholly.com/#scholly. Michigan College Planning has a list of the most popular local and national scholarships on their website listed by the application deadline.

PSAT scores for Juniors are available — they can be found at www.collegeboard.org. This is a great time to decide if they should take the SAT prior to the test that is given in April during the school day. Students can register for the ACT at act.org and for the SAT at collegeboard.org. Colleges will accept that ACT or SAT — many students will take both to see which test is better suited for them. There are many test prep resources available — including Khan Academy, the ACT and SAT websites, test prep books and local test prep tutors.

In addition to preparing for the ACT and SAT, Juniors should be narrowing down their list of potential schools and scheduling campus visits to learn which school is a good fit for them. Colleges now offer virtual tours, presentations and group meetings to help prospective students learn more about the school. There are also opportunities to join live information sessions and events. There are still many schools that are offering in person campus visits which include a presentation from the admissions, financial aid and academics offices and a campus tour typically led by a current student. The visit affords the prospective student the opportunity to see first hand what the campus is like — and some include a chance to sit in on a class.

The Common App, which is used by more than 900 schools at this time, will provide the essay prompts for the 2021-2022 application sometime after the first of the year. Juniors can start working on the essay this spring to get a jump start on their college application.

Families with younger students have more time to prepare for college — they can take many steps to make college more affordable. Start now to optimize your financial aid eligibility for your student’s college years.

Take advantage of Michigan College Planning’s College Planning workshop to learn more about the application process and how to become what colleges want. Visit www.michigancollegeplanning.com or https://www.tcaps.net/programs/leap/for locations and dates. The workshops cover steps you can take now to assure you understand the cost of attendance and how you can afford college. Feel free to call Michigan College Planning with any of your college planning questions or for a complimentary college funding consultation.

Vicki L. Beam is a college planner at Michigan College Planning located in Traverse City. She encourages questions and comments about future columns. Contact Michigan College Planning at (231)947-0203, by email at vicki@michigancollegeplanning.com and at www.michigancollegeplanning.com.

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