College access basics


100% Meet Need Colleges

Colleges that meet 100% of need are schools that promise to make sure that all students’ financial need (usually determined by FAFSA) is completely covered through grants, work-study, scholarships, and sometimes loans.

Most students – according to their Student Aid Index – will have to cover some by paying out of pocket, finding scholarships, or taking out loans.

If you aren’t able to attend a school that meets 100% of need, you should still look for schools that meet a large portion of need. 80% and up is a good number to look for.


CSS Profile ( College Scholarship Service Profile)

The CSS Profile is similar to the FAFSA, in that it’s an application for financial aid. The biggest difference is that the FAFSA is for federal financial aid and the CSS Profile is not.

Some schools require applicants to fill out the CSS Profile. Make sure you know if the schools you’re applying to require it! Otherwise, your financial aid or acceptance might be delayed.

Students who are undocumented cannot fill out the FAFSA because they do not qualify for federal financial aid. However, they are eligible for non-federal aid, so they CAN fill out the CSS Profile.


Different Types of Financial Aid

  • Grants: FREE MONEY! don’t need to be repaid. Usually received from the schools themselves
    • You usually don’t have to apply for grants; they are given to you as part of your financial aid package from each school
    • You don’t need to pay back as long as you meet all the requirements
    • You probably will not receive enough grant money to meet your EFC
    • Federal grant programs fact sheet (in English and Spanish)
  • Scholarships: FREE MONEY! don’t need to be repaid. Received from schools or outside organizations
    • There are thousands of different types of scholarships with vastly different amounts
    • If you have a specific characteristic, you can google scholarships for that characteristic and see what pops up – e.g. “scholarships for left-handed people,” “scholarships for relatives of police officers” (these are real scholarships you can apply for!)
  • Work-study: part-time employment through the school as part of your financial aid package
  • Loans: need to be repaid with interest
    • Federal loans are better than private loans – lower interest rates, more options
    • Do NOT take out private/bank loans – interest rates are crazy!
    • Try to minimize the amount of loans you are taking out
    • At the same time, don’t be scared of loans
      • You can pay it as soon as you start working
      • A lot of people have student debt
      • You can think about it as an investment in your future – but be realistic about the amount of debt you are comfortable with and try to minimize it!
  • Types of federal loans:
    • Perkins: tied to the university
    • Direct subsidized: only available to students with financial need; government pays interest while you’re in school
    • Direct unsubsidized: available to any student (not just based on need); interest starts right away
      • Avoid unsubsidized loans if possible to avoid paying more money
  • Learn more about different types of student loans

Early Action (EA)

  • Earlier deadline and earlier decision
  • Non-binding: if you are accepted early action, you do NOT have to go to that school
  • Apply early action if you have a specific school you’re really interested in that you are confident you want to go to
    • The benefit of applying EA is you get the process over with sooner
  • Some schools (e.g. Princeton, Harvard, Boston College) have Single Choice Early Action/Restrictive Early Action
    • This means the school only allows you to apply EA if you don’t apply EA to any other private schools
    • Still non-binding if you get EA
  • List of schools you can apply EA to, by state.

Early Decision (ED)

  • Earlier deadline and earlier decision
  • BINDING: if you are accepted early decision, you HAVE to go to that school
    • For this reason, do NOT apply ED to any school that does NOT meet 100% of need. If you are accepted ED, you won’t get your financial aid package at the same time. If the school doesn’t cover 100% of need, you will be on the hook for paying
  • Slightly higher chance of being accepted
  • Apply early decision if you have a specific school you’re really interested in that you’ve visited and that meets full need


The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is required to apply for federal student aid like grants, work study, and certain types of loans. It is the first step to getting money for college.

The FAFSA is released on December 2023. Official date will be released later this fall. 

  • To fill out the FAFSA, go here.
  • List of what you will need to fill out the FAFSA
  • FAFSA4caster: estimates how much financial aid you are likely to get

Fly-in Programs

Programs where colleges fly students to their campus to spend a few days – see the campus, meet current students, sit in on classes. One of the best ways to really see what that college is like on a daily basis. Typically held by selective to highly selective colleges, and often free to the student.

How to apply? Each program is different. Application deadlines range from summer to early October.


Net Price Calculators

Similar to the FAFSA4caster, but for a specific school. Use the school’s net price calculator to estimate how much financial aid you will receive at that school.

Easiest way to find a net price calculator for a specific school is to google “school’s name net price calculator”. You can also search for specific schools with net price calculators here

Rolling Admissions

Means that admissions decisions are returned in the order in which they were received. Most common at less-selective schools.


Test Optional Schools

Some colleges don’t require applicants to submit their standardized test scores when they apply. These colleges are considered test optional.

Some test optional schools require students submit other materials – such as essays, portfolios, school assignments – instead of their standardized test scores.

You should apply to test optional schools if you:

  • have a good GPA but feel your SAT scores don’t reflect your ability
  • would be a competitive applicant for more selective schools if your SAT score was higher
  • are interested in any of the schools on these lists

FairTest’s list of test optional schools

PDF (printable) version