How Do I Answer If I Need Need-Based Financial Aid on the Common App?

Learn why the Common App asks this questions, if this information affects admissions decisions, how you should answer depending on your circumstances, and what to do if you are unsure of your answer.
Student completing the Common App

Applying to college can be a tedious and stressful process for students and their parents, especially when a student is looking at five, ten, fifteen, or more colleges. The Common Application, or Common App, is accepted by more than 1,000 schools, including some colleges outside the U.S., and streamlines the process allowing students to apply to many colleges simultaneously.

As a college financial aid advisor, parents often ask me about a specific question within the Common App that asks if the student applicant will be applying for need-based financial aid. The question can be daunting:

"If I answer, 'No,' will I miss out on receiving any financial support I might be eligible for?"

"If I answer, 'Yes,' could this negatively impact my admission chances?"

These are valid concerns. The Common App asks this question for two reasons: first, it is a common application going to multiple public and private institutions, and is trying to gather the best profile of you and your family to share with their partnering institutions. Secondly, the institutions use this information to cultivate and create their incoming class. With this data, they can see the number of students seeking aid, which can help them plan accordingly.

But does this information affect admissions decisions? Many colleges and universities are need-blind, meaning this information does not affect admissions decisions. Others are referred to as need-aware, suggesting that they may examine a student's financial need at the time of admission. Need-aware does not mean they would deny a student because they may be requesting financial aid. It could come into decision-making if the applicant is late applying for admission or on the admissions waitlist. This is why keeping to deadlines is essential every step of the way.

What if you are unsure if you are eligible for financial aid? Every college should have its own Net Price Calculator, found on its website (federal policy ensures they have one). Try inputting your family's financial numbers to see if you qualify for aid. If you do, confidently mark "Yes" on the Common App question. If you don't, and you decide that you won't apply for financial aid, then you can indicate "No." Keep in mind, however, that Net Price Calculators only provide an estimate of your financial aid eligibility, so if you're close to qualifying, it's probably best to still apply for aid. And if you end up not qualifying for need-based financial aid but would like to take a student loan to help with the cost, you'll receive a Federal Direct Student Loan by submitting the FAFSA®.

Another thing to keep in mind is if you are applying to a school that offers merit grants and scholarships for academic or achievement excellence, check with their financial aid office and ask if you need to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for this opportunity. Colleges and universities can differ in these policies.

Lastly, keep in mind that colleges and universities want to help you. If a parent experiences a job loss, illness, or any other life-changing event, contact the financial aid office and talk with them about applying for aid because of these exceptional circumstances.

While an excellent admissions tool, the Common App is not a replacement for the FAFSA or CSS Profile®. When in doubt, complete both applications by the stated deadlines to ensure you receive the most support you are entitled to.

Learn more about admissions and financial aid