It’s been said that completing the FAFSA combines all the glamor of doing your taxes with the fun of spending an afternoon in your dentist’s waiting room. Still, there are some ways to make the process less painful and more productive.
Some of the confusion surrounding FAFSA might stem from its very name. While it’s true that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used to determine eligibility for federal student aid, it’s also used by states and schools. In other words, even though it’s a federal form, it’s also how you’ll qualify for aid from the state and from the institution, too.
How Do I Know If I Should Submit a FASFA?
This is an easy one. Experts agree that every student should carefully prepare and submit a FAFSA (and if you are applying to one of the 200+ schools that require it, the more rigorous CSS PROFILE). This holds true no matter your financial circumstances and even if you don’t plan on using student aid.
Why is that? Even if you don’t need the help, having your FAFSA sent to a school signals the student’s likelihood to attend if accepted, a key factor in gaining admission according to experts such as former college president Lucie Lapovsky.
When Should the FASFA be Submitted?
The “official” deadline to submit the FAFSA is June 30. But if you wait until then you’re likely to be disappointed with the aid packages you receive.
That’s because each individual state uses the FAFSA to determine its own financial aid awards. Each has its own submission deadline, and those deadlines typically fall in February and March. (Find yours here)
On top of that, each school has a unique deadline too. So you’ll want to have your FAFSA submitted well ahead of the earliest deadline from the schools on your list.
TIP: Submit as early as possible, starting October 1. The closer you are to the “front of the line” the more options you will have … because financial aid (need-based and merit-based) is distributed on a first-come, first served basis.
This means you should not wait for your taxes to be done –you can use estimated numbers to submit and go back and update them later.
What are the Most Common FASFA Mistakes (and How Do I Avoid Them?)
Even though the FAFSA has over 100 questions that look at over 70 different factors, the most common mistakes are things like misspelled names and transposed numbers.
Simple mistakes cause delays. And delays can cost you. So take the extra time to ensure:
- Student and parent names exactly match what’s on each person’s Social Security card
- Street addresses, birthdates, and other basic information are entered correctly
- Everybody (electronically) signs the form before it’s submitted
TIP: Go to studentaid.gov/FSAID to create a Federal Student Aid ID (FSA ID) for the student and each parent so you can sign and submit your FAFSA electronically.
Another way to ensure accuracy and avoid keystroke errors is to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer tax info directly into your FAFSA.
According to the Department of Education’s blog, other common mistakes include:
- Forgetting that FAFSA is a student application, not a parent application — so when the form says “you” or “your”, it’s talking to the student.
- Mixing up parent and student information: Sections that ask for parent information are very clearly marked.
- Leaving a field blank: Even if a question does not apply to you, don’t leave it blank, put in a zero.
And, while it’s not technically a “mistake”, many families needlessly pay to submit their FAFSA from a third-party website. As the name says, the FAFSA is a free application and you DO NOT have to pay to submit it. To avoid such fees, be sure you are using the Department of Education’s official portal at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
TIP: Be wary of fee-based services that offer help with the FAFSA. Not only can you submit your FAFSA free of charge, you can also access a wealth of advice and information on sites such as studentaid.ed.gov, fafsa.ed.gov and by tweeting your questions to @FAFSA.