With the financial aid process, timing is everything. How early you start thinking about scholarships and when you apply for aid can dramatically affect how much college will actually cost. Staying on top of all those deadlines throughout high school can help tremendously when you're trying to figure out how to pay for college.
Students who start the college hunt early in their high school careers have more time to find institutions that offer generous financial aid packages to students in their income bracket. The National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator tool can help you scope out aid-generous institutions, but you can also get a ballpark aid estimate by using each school's net price calculator. If you can, try to take the PSATs, a sort of practice SAT test, this year to give yourself time to work on your weakest areas.
Keep up the research and make absolutely sure to take the PSATs this year, even if you also took them last year. In addition to giving you a heads up on what the actual SATs will be like, the PSATs qualify high-performing juniors for the National Merit Scholarship, which is currently worth $2,500. To boost that amount, several colleges offer additional institutional scholarships to National Merit finalists and semifinalists.
If you can, take the real SATs and/or ACTs this year, so you have plenty of time to take them multiple times before college application season rolls around, and any Advanced Placement or SAT II subject tests you may need for courses you take during your junior year. Some colleges require SAT II subject tests whereas others don't, so check with the schools you'll be applying to for info on what testing you'll need.
Summer After Junior Year
Prepare your college application essays and take summer classes, or do an internship, co-op or research project — whatever you can to wow college admissions reps. The better your academic profile, the more likely you are to land merit-based awards. If you're set on getting some college credit before heading off to school, consider enrolling in a community college or dual enrollment course, but make sure your four-year colleges of choice accept those credits.
Senior Year - Fall
Take the SATs and/or ACTs at least twice this year. Some schools offer automatic scholarships to students with impressive scores, so it's worth your while to aim high and take them early. Also, mind the deadlines. In order to receive scores on time, many schools require students to take the SATs or ACTs several weeks before the regular application deadline. Check with your colleges for more info.
Early action and early decision applications are also due in October and November. Since some of these are binding, meaning that if accepted you must attend, understand exactly what your obligation is before applying.
Senior Year - Winter
The regular application season runs from December through February and it run concurrently with financial aid season. In addition to applying for college admissions, target scholarships (local and regional ones first) that can reduce your college costs and make sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.ed.gov as close to January 1 as you can. If you don't have your tax information yet, estimate it so you're eligible for the highest number of awards — some are passed out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Senior Year - Spring
Acceptance letters are usually sent in March, and financial aid award letters go out in April, letting you know exactly how much your school is offering. There's still time to apply to private scholarship programs that have later deadlines. Remember that if you win a private scholarship after receiving your award letter, you must report it to the school you'll be attending.
Senior Year - Summer
It's time to earn cash and find student loans to fill in the financial aid gaps. Shop carefully as interest rates, repayment terms and borrower protections can vary between lenders, and try to opt for federal student loans above private ones if you can.
College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
About PSAT/NMSQT, The College Board, https://www.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt
Official Student Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT, National Merit Scholarship Program, http://www.nationalmerit.org/student_guide.pdf
Guide to Financial Aid Award Letters, FinAid.org, http://www.finaid.org/fafsa/awardletters.phtml