The cost of college is a concern for many families. While some parents know that Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) exists, many still struggle to fill out the application correctly.
Filing the FAFSA is easier than ever and will give you access to the largest source of financial aid to help pay for college. The office of Federal Student Aid provides around $112 billion in grant, work-study, and loan funds each year.
The application consists of about 100 questions about your family’s financial situation. Most people finish the form in about an hour, which can be a deterrent. Don’t let the application intimidate you, and follow the nine steps below to ensure you aren’t leaving money on the table.
1. Don’t Assume You Aren’t Eligible
FAFSA funding can come in a few forms, like loans, grants, or work-study programs, so don’t assume your family isn’t eligible based on income alone. FAFSA takes other information into account, like family size and the number of children in the household in college, to increase eligibility for families.
2. Check Your Parental Status
Filing financial forms like FAFSA can be tricky for different family situations. Whether the parents are married, separated, divorced, or living in other places, you can check the status here for FAFSA parent info.
Typically, married parents can file together. If parents are divorced, the child’s FAFSA will use the financial information from the parent who provided the most support in the previous 12 months.
3. Fill Out the Forms on Time or Early
Waiting until the deadline to file is the leading cause of mistakes on the FAFSA, as more applicants rush through the application without time to check their work. FAFSA forms are due at the end of June for the following academic year, but there’s no benefit to waiting until the last minute.
The Federal Student Aid department has additional tools to help you forecast your eligibility for federal aid and see the deadlines for student aid for each state and academic year. Use the Federal Student Aid tools here.
4. Double Check Your Work
With over 100 questions to enter, your best bet is to take your time and double-check your submissions. A simple typo can impede filing and affect the aid awarded. FAFSA uses current government databases to match individuals for student aid, so all the correct information is required.
Everything must be correct, from reporting income to entering a student’s Social Security number, to verify the student and their family for federal aid.
5. Use the IRS DRT
The IRS created the Data Retrieval Tool, or DRT, to make filing forms easier. The DRT automatically pulls in the information submitted on tax forms from the two previous years. Since most family households that file taxes are eligible to use this tool, it is a great time saver and decreases the chance of human error when entering old tax information for the FAFSA.
You can learn more about the IRS DRT here.
6. Only Disclose Relevant Sources of Income
Like any financial aid application, you must provide standard income information. There are additional items of untaxed income and assets that the FAFSA requires you to disclose as well, like:
- Child support
- Interest payments
- Worker’s compensation
- Veterans non-education benefits
- Real estate beyond the primary residence
Retirement plans, like 401(k), 403(b), or IRA, should not be reported as assets on the FAFSA.
7. List all of the Colleges You’re Applying to
When filing your FAFSA, you can include more than one of the colleges or universities you are applying to – up to ten separate schools.
Adding schools to your FAFSA will send your information to those institutions. This can work in your favor in weighing options between public and private schools. Private institutions typically have more funding they can award to students and can match the affordability of a local public school.
Nothing happens if you don’t apply to all the schools you listed on your FAFSA. The schools won’t process your FAFSA information as part of their financial aid disbursement decisions.
8. Sign the Form
It might seem incredible, but many FAFSA forms are submitted yearly without a signature at the bottom of the form. It is a long form, and as it takes about an hour to fill out, it is certainly understandable that the average user sometimes logs off before filling in the electronic signature box at the very end of the form, but it’s still a necessary step. Failing to sign the form prevents the application from being processed.
All successful submissions receive an email confirmation within two days. If you haven’t received one yet, chances are you’ll need to log back in to sign the form to continue the process.
9. Renew Each Year
For each year you apply for federal financial aid, you must fill out the FAFSA again. The support you are awarded can fluctuate, as a family’s financial situation and dependent factors (like the number of children in college) can change year to year. Once enrolled at a school, chances are their financial aid office will remind you about the FAFSA, so you’ll only have to do it all alone the first time.
Congratulations! You Completed the FAFSA Form Correctly
Remember that the best way to complete FASA is online, early, and without mistakes. Online submissions will be processed within three to five days, while paper submissions will be processed within seven to ten days. If your application has missing or incorrect information, you must correct your FASA form as soon as possible.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 11, 2018, and has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.