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Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the most important step in securing money to pay for college. Schools use the data they receive from this form to determine the student’s eligibility for university grants and scholarships. The federal government uses the data to determine what kind of grants and student loans the student is eligible for.
Unfortunately, simple mistakes on the FAFSA could cost students thousands of dollars in financial aid. Before your family fills out the FAFSA, check out the 14 biggest mistakes you should avoid to optimize the amount of money your family receives in financial aid.
1. Not Filling out the FAFSA
The biggest mistake you can make is not filling out the FAFSA in the first place. Thirty percent of eligible students for the 2021-2022 school year didn’t fill out the form, according to the How America Pays for College 2022 survey by Sallie Mae. Of those students, 36% didn’t think they’d qualify for financial aid.
“Everybody qualifies for something,” says Richard Castellano, spokesperson for Sallie Mae. “Not filling out the FAFSA is a big mistake. If you don’t complete the FAFSA, you’re not in line for that aid.”
2. Forgetting Login or Application Information
The FSA ID is an ID you set up with a username and password when applying for federal student aid. Each person that has to supply information—parents and the student—needs a separate ID in order to submit income information. Without everyone’s information, the FAFSA can’t be processed.
Before the FAFSA application opens on Oct. 1 every year, make sure everyone has an FSA ID. If a student or parent has applied for financial aid before, they may already have one. But each applicant should take time now to check that they can log in and haven’t forgotten their password, for instance.
The FAFSA requires financial information such as bank and investment information for each member of the family required to submit information. Have statements from these accounts nearby as well as government ID numbers and Social Security card information.
3. Filing an Incomplete Form
The U.S. Department of Education may not process your form if you leave spaces blank or include inaccurate Social Security and driver’s license numbers, Castellano says. Before submitting your FAFSA, double check that all information is correct and no required information is missing.
You also should pay attention to any correspondence you receive from schools or the Department of Education itself requesting information. You may be required to submit extra proof of income, for example. Only submit this information to official sources. The FAFSA also allows changes. You can log in anytime to make corrections.
4. Thinking You Missed the FAFSA Filing Deadline
While some aid is first-come, first-served, you won’t get anything if you don’t apply. The final date to submit the FAFSA for the 2023-2024 academic year is June 30, 2024. Colleges and states often have separate deadlines, so be sure to learn those, as well. You can look up your state’s deadline on the Federal Student Aid website.
5. Not Naming Every School You’re Considering
Schools only receive your financial information to consider you for financial aid if you tell them. List all possible schools the student is considering on the FAFSA. You’re allowed up to 10, and you can always update the list later when you eliminate schools from consideration. If you swap out one college for another, make sure you also update the order of schools selected. Some states require listing state schools early in the list. If you live in one of these states, you should also notify your state that you made the change.
6. Not Watching How You Rank Schools
One of the easiest and most costly mistakes you can make is not getting a state grant because you placed a state school in which you have applied or may apply too low on your FAFSA form. Depending on the state you live in, you won’t get state grants unless you rank a state school among your top three picks. Check out the state list on studentaid.gov to see how your state processes grants. When in doubt, list the state school you are most likely to attend as your first choice.
7. Not Filling Out the Form Early Enough
Filling out the FAFSA as close to Oct. 1 as possible for the following school year is very important for getting as much financial aid as possible. Some types of financial aid are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. In these cases, the longer you wait, the less money is available.
Put together a list of federal deadlines, state deadlines and individual college deadlines to make sure you don’t miss the final application date. Deadlines can vary by individual type of financial aid, as well.
8. Not Filling Out Additional Applications
States and colleges may require other applications for scholarships and grants in addition to filling out the FAFSA. Check state and college websites for a list of deadlines you need to know. Also, call the financial aid office to find out about scholarships or grants you could qualify for that you may not know about. Fill out these applications as soon as possible in case some are first-come, first-served or ask for additional information.
9. Not Filling Out the FAFSA Every Year
Too often, families think once they fill out the FAFSA, the school has their financial information for the student’s entire college career, Castellano says. But you’re required to fill out a FAFSA for every year you’re in college in order to qualify for financial aid. It’s usually a shorter process, called a FAFSA renewal.
Just like when you filed the FAFSA the first time, make sure to submit your application as early as possible for every year you or your student is in school. If considering transferring colleges, make sure to include all possible colleges where the student could attend.
10. Submitting the FAFSA Only After Filing Your Income Tax Return
There was a time in FAFSA history when you needed to input recent tax information on your application. But now you can download prior tax information during the process directly from the IRS website. Just remember to make sure you add tax information from the IRS site as needed for each individual person on the form.
11. Thinking There Are Age Requirements
You can get student loans and other financial aid no matter how old you are. For instance, senior citizens can still get financial aid for college. Even the qualifications for being an independent student —a student who may qualify for more aid because parent income is no longer considered—aren’t necessarily age-based. In general, you must be at least 24 by Jan. 1 of the school year for which you’re applying for financial aid to be considered independent, but the age rule doesn’t apply if you’re married, have children, are in graduate school or if you are on active military duty.
12. Thinking There Are Always Income Requirements
While income is a factor for some financial aid—you’ll need to show “exceptional financial need” in order to qualify for a Pell Grant, for example—you or your family’s income isn’t a factor when applying for direct unsubsidized federal loans. As for other types of need-based financial aid, income requirements vary by school.
13. Not Filling Out the Special Circumstances Form after Submitting the FAFSA
Because of pandemic-related job or wage losses, this may be a year when your family’s income is lower than it was for the tax year that generally determines your financial aid awards. Luckily, college financial aid offices offer a special circumstances form for reporting changes in income such as loss of a job, reduced hours or medical expenses. Filling out this form can spur a reevaluation of financial aid packages from federal grants to college scholarships that consider financial need.
It’s a good idea to contact financial aid offices first to understand how changes in income will be evaluated. A school that may not normally consider job loss in their special circumstances form might this year.
14. Not Asking for Help When You Need it
Many financial aid prep companies will charge a steep fee to help families fill out the FAFSA, but there is a lot of free help available. You can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 433-3243, your college’s financial aid office or make an appointment with your student’s high school counselor. You also can get together with other families to fill out the form at the same time.
Filling out the FAFSA is an important first step for students wishing for help paying for college. Make sure to fill out the form as close to Oct. 1 as possible in the year preceding the next school year. Double check the form for errors before pressing “Submit.” Then continue the process by submitting additional forms as needed. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
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