FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the application you fill out to get financial aid for college. In the past it took forever. But today’s graduating seniors can go electronic, making it easy to get the money you need.
We can’t guarantee you’ll get financial aid if you fill out the FAFSA, but with the advice of Nicole Callahan (Digital Engagement Strategist with the government at Federal Student Aid), and some other helpful tips, we CAN help you get it done right the first time. This article covers common mistakes that students have actually made and gives you some tips for avoiding them.
Pre-FAFSA Check List:
Make sure your parents have filed their taxes. And ask them to ASAP if they haven’t already
Use the online version of FAFSA – www.fafsa.gov. You can finish in as little as 30 minutes if you have all your information gathered ahead of time.
Get your Federal Student Aid ID from the website before you begin. It can take up to 3 days to get it back, and you can’t start until you get your FSA ID.
Be ready to import your family’s tax information online. The IRS has teamed up with the Department of Education. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to import the tax information for you and your parents directly into the FAFSA application.
Okay, are you ready? Here are the Common FAFSA Mistakes
1. NOT COMPLETING THE FORM: This is the biggest mistake you can make – not even filling out the form. Maybe you think it’s too hard or your parents make too much money so you don’t even want to try. No Way! There is no income cut-off and if you don’t try, you could miss out on thousands of dollars to help you pay for college
2. USING THE WRONG WEBSITE: If the web address doesn’t end in .GOV, you’re in the wrong place. There are lots of sites out there that try to make money off of helping people fill out the FAFSA, but you don’t need them. The FAFSA is provided by the government for free. So if the site asks for credit card info, you’re in the wrong place. Go to FAFSA.ed.gov and get started.
3. Waiting to get AN FSA ID: (Hey parents, this is different from past years). You can’t use the Federal Aid PIN to log in to the FAFSA site. You have to get a username and password. It can take up to three days to get it back and you can’t sign on without it. And if you’re a dependent on your parents’ taxes, you need to get one and so do your parents. Click here for your ID to get started.
4. NOT FILLING OUT THE FAFSA UNTIL AFTER YOU FILE TAXES: The money is first come, first served. You want to get your FAFSA filed as quickly as you can. Maybe you or your parents haven’t filed your taxes. Click here to find out what to do. You can file using the most recent year’s tax information. Then, when your taxes are done you can update the FAFSA using the Data Retrieval Tool.
5. Missing the Deadline: Keep an eye on the FAFSA deadline, and remember there’s not just one, there are three: states, schools and the federal government can all have their own deadlines. You have to get that application filed before the EARLIEST date.
6. NOT READING DEFINITIONS CAREFULLY: Read each FAFSA question and definition carefully. Be sure you’re providing the info they’re asking for. Some common questions that are mis-answered:
a. Your Number of Family Members (Household Size): This is actually two different questions. The “Number of Family Members” refers to you, the student. while the “Number of household members” is a question for your parents. Read the questions 2 or 3 times if you need to!
b. Legal Guardianship: When you see this question, they are NOT asking about your parents. If you live with your parent(s), the answer is no. Go here to find out for sure. If you are living with your legal guardian, then every time it says ‘parents’ on this page, it means your legal guardian.
c. If Your Parents are Divorced or Separated: If your parents are married and living together, both of them have to complete the parents’ part of the FAFSA. But if they’re separated and divorced, it gets pretty confusing. Are they living in different places? Do you stay with your mom more than your dad or visa versa? Do you split your time equally between both parents? FAFSA asks all of the questions determine who does what. But there’s an entire page to help you figure out the answers.
7. ENTERING THE WRONG INFO: Seriously, double and triple check everything to make sure you haven’t entered a typo on your FAFSA. Here are some common info errors that people make:
a. Confusing Parent and Student Information: Who does the form mean when it says “you” and “yours”? Not your parents, even if they are filling the FAFSA out for you. If FAFSA wants your parents’ info, they will tell you. Otherwise they mean YOU, the student.
b. Entering the wrong name: Yes, it’s happened. NO nicknames. Only use your name as it appears on official government documents. Schoolboy Q would have to enter Quincey Matthew Henley.
c. Entering the wrong Social Security Number: Maybe you sneezed while you were typing (it could happen). Double & triple check this one….it’s very important.
i. Do you have a SS# but your parents don’t have one? Click here
d. Amount of Your Income Tax: Be careful with this one. It’s not asking for your adjusted gross income. Click here to figure it out on your own OR you can use that Data Retrieval Tool from the IRS. That’s the easy way.
8. NOT REPORTING YOUR PARENTS’ INCOME: This won’t apply to most of you, but even if you and the IRS think you pay your own way and you’re not a dependent, FAFSA may think so. So the IRS rules and the FAFSA rules for dependency are different. Click here to figure out how FAFSA considers you.
9. LISTING ONLY ONE COLLEGE: Most Freshman FAFSA applications only list one college. If you haven’t decided whether or not you’re going to apply to Harvard, Yale or My Community College or all three (or more), list them on the application. It can’t hurt and don’t worry, the colleges won’t see the list.
10. NOT USING THE IRS DATA RETRIEVAL PLAN: Using this tool can prevent careless and costly mistakes. Your tax info is usually available online at the IRS site about 2 weeks after taxes are filed.
11. NOT SIGNING THE FAFSA: You got this far, you just need to sign it electronically. If you don’t have a FSA ID or if you forgot it, go back up to # 3 and get one (or another one). Your parents have to sign their portion too. If you’re not sure your application actually went through, check your status here.
Okay guys, we know it looks intense, but it’s really pretty easy. Just make sure you’re ready ahead of time with the “Pre-FAFSA check list” above and get your ID and start the application. All the links in this article and answers to the questions are in the application online. If you’ve done your part and want to know if you actually get money, call the Financial Aid Department at your school when you’ve been accepted and ask them. They have some pretty wonderful people working in those offices and they are always happy to help. GOOD LUCK!!
To see the article by Nicole Callahan, go to the Department of Education site.