The process of applying for admission to college and obtaining financial aid can be an overwhelming and confusing time.

Area seniors have spent the fall season completing college applications and most are waiting to learn if they have been accepted into the college of their choice. If the school of their choice provides merit based aid (aid that is based upon their GPA and standardized test scores), they may learn in the acceptance letter the amount that they were awarded.

For most seniors, they won’t learn of the entire financial aid offer until after the first of the year — possibly as late as April. Financial aid offered by the federal government, along with aid from the college that is based upon the financial need demonstrated by the family, typically isn’t awarded until then.

By now most seniors should have also completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to determine what financial aid they are eligible for.

Many schools and scholarship programs, including The University of Michigan, use the CSS PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA because they believe that, by collecting more detailed information from students and their families, they can make a more complete analysis of a family’s financial capacity to pay for college-related expenses. The CSS Aid PROFILE collects more detailed information about a family’s financial circumstances and contains about 50 percent more questions than the FAFSA. There are significant differences between the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA.

Unlike the more widely used FAFSA, which is required for any kind of federal aid, as well as for assistance from most states and colleges, the CSS Profile is just for private, non-federal aid. The online aid application is used by about 400 colleges and scholarship providers — so if a student is looking for aid from one of these organizations they will need to complete the CSS Profile.

Each school has a different deadline for completion of the CSS Profile — so it is important to check with each school to avoid losing out on private aid offered by the college or university.

Students are responsible for submitting the forms, but parents will need to get their documents together before starting the process. A list of information required to complete the CSS Profile is available at https://cssprofile.collegeboard.org. In order to file the CSS PROFILE, the student will need to log in to the CSS PROFILE site with his or her College Board account, the same account used to find PSAT and SAT scores.

When completing the CSS Profile, parents will report the value of cash, savings and investments as of the date the application is completed. The value of the home and other real estate should be listed at fair market value if it were sold today, not the tax-assessed value. Families also will be asked to give information on the age and value of automobiles as well as the values of any businesses or farms that may be owned by them. In addition, it is important to know what amount a family has spent in medical expenses. Students with divorced parents also will need the noncustodial parent to file a noncustodial parent form.

Once the application process for admission and financial aid is complete, seniors should begin concentrating on applying for additional scholarships.

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 for. The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation gives away more than $150,000 each year. The 2018 applications will be available sometime in late January or early February. Visit www.gtrcf.org for more information.

Michigan College Planning has many free workshops scheduled in the area. Visit michigancollegeplanning.com for locations and dates. The workshops are informative and include steps you can take right now to assure you understand the cost of attendance and how you can afford college.

Vicki L. Beam is a college planner with Michigan College Planning located in Traverse City. She encourages questions and comments about college planning. Contact Michigan College Planning at 231-947-0203 or vicki@michigancollegeplanning.com.