What All College Students Need to Know About the FAFSA
Jan 03, 2012
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form college students must fill out to be eligible for state and federal monetary assistance. Completing the form can allow individuals to qualify for grants, student loans and work-study programs. Learn ten things students should keep in mind when filling out their FAFSA forms.
1. Go electronic.
Completing the FAFSA online provides many advantages over filling out a paper application. The website form includes an editing feature that minimizes the chance you'll make errors that can delay your application. Forms filled out online are also processed much more quickly than paper applications. You can also have FAFSA information sent to up to ten institutions that you're applying to when you complete the form online.
2. File as soon as possible after January 1st.
The FAFSA can be filled out beginning on January 1st. While the official filing deadline is June 30th, the school(s) you're applying to may have priority processing dates - often in February or mid-March. Experts advise your chance of securing greater financial aid is enhanced by filing your FAFSA as early as possible.
3. Have your family's tax return on hand.
The FAFSA requires you to provide parents' financial information from tax forms. Figures should be from a completed filing for the past year. If your parents' taxes haven't been prepared it's possible to provide an estimate of income and assets. Know, however, that financial awards can be adjusted if actual figures differ significantly from estimates. If parents are divorced, the FAFSA requires financial information only for the parent you live with most of the year.
4. Know which financials not to include.
While you'll have to provide a lot of financial information on the FAFSA, there is some information you want to be sure to omit. For instance, parent retirement funds in 401(k) plans or IRAs need not be declared. You also don't have to mention any equity your family has in a home. Including this information can unnecessarily harm your prospects for need-based aid.
5. Make financial moves to increase your chance of getting college aid.
If you have significant personal worth in the form of assets, it may be best for those investments to be transferred into a parent's name. A higher percentage of student assets goes into FAFSA calculations for determining expected financial contribution than does for parent investments. Additionally, because personal savings can lower the likelihood of need-based aid, both parents and students are advised to pay off consumer debt.
6. Double-check every figure.
At last you've managed to provide all of the financial information asked for on the FAFSA. With your head swimming in numbers, you feel ready to click 'submit' and be done with the application.... Don't just yet. Wait until you double-check every figure provided on the application form. Mistakes can lead to significant processing delays and cause you to miss out on aid opportunities.
7. Review your Student Aid Report (SAR).
You should receive a Student Aid Report three to five days after submitting your application online. Carefully look over this document to be sure the information is correct. If corrections are required, send them in right away to avoid processing delays. Also note your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), an estimate of what the government deems you and your parents can pay out-of-pocket toward your education.
8. Follow up with the financial aid office at the school(s) you're considering.
Particularly if there are extenuating circumstances (like a job loss) limiting your family's ability to pay college expenses, you should contact the financial aid office at the school(s) you've applied to. The FAFSA does not provide an opportunity to declare such circumstances, so financial hardships won't automatically be incorporated into aid calculations. Your applied-to school(s), however, can factor in these circumstances.
9. Free help is available.
While it is a relatively simple form to complete, the FAFSA does feature questions that can confuse. Fortunately, free help is available by phone (1-800-433-3243) and online (including chat support). Experts advise against paying anyone to help you fill out the FAFSA. Companies offering these services are suspect, and the abundance of free assistance makes them unnecessary.
10. Don't forget to reapply.
The FAFSA must be filled out each year. The total amount of your financial aid may vary annually based on fluctuations in yours and your parents' income. To get the most aid available to you, follow the above tips again next year. Don't forget that the most generous financial aid packages go to those who file early.
Having trouble making your financial aid last the whole year? Read about ways to stop wasting money on things you don't need.