You want to get it right. But even with its many improvements, the FAFSA can be challenging for some families to complete accurately and in plenty of time for colleges to consider.
And it’s not just about federal aid. Some colleges and private scholarship foundations require FAFSA completion for students to receive merit aid as well.
So what’s the best way to maximize your potential for aid?
Complete the FAFSA early and online.
To get families through the process, the feds have thoughtfully provided a series of YouTube videos as well as lots of detailed explanations in FAFSA FAQ’s and throughout the Federal Student Aid Website.
And to combat some of the more common FAFSA mistakes, online applicants are now given the option of retrieving IRS data to automatically populate sections of the form.
This option simplifies the application process, helps reduce errors, and may lower chances of being selected for verification. It’s great if you’ve already filed your taxes, but not so good if you haven’t. Regardless, the status of your tax filing should NOT ever be used as a delaying tactic. File an amendment later if necessary.
Before getting started, you’ll need to gather your latest tax returns, bank statements, and investment records. You'll also need a FAFSA ID, which takes about three days to get.
And as you start to get the process off the ground, take care to avoid some of the more common FAFSA filing mistakes:
- Using the incorrect website. The one and only official FAFSA website is fafsa.gov. You never have to pay to complete the FAFSA, and if you are asked for credit card information, you’re not on the official government site.
- Neglecting to get an FSA ID first. The FASA process changed this year. Parents and students can no longer use a PIN to log into and sign FAFSA online. Instead, you must obtain the new FSA ID—a username and password. But it can take up to three days before you can use it. To avoid delays, register for an FSA ID in advance. If you’re a dependent student, a parent will need to create one too.
- Waiting to complete your taxes. Although it’s preferable to have tax returns filed before starting, sometimes it’s just not possible especially if your employer is one of many who routinely ignore W-2 deadlines. Waiting for your employer’s bookkeeper can cause you to miss priority state and college filing deadlines, and these delays could cause you to lose aid. So go ahead and provide estimated information and plan to update once your taxes are done. (HINT: Use your last pay stub from 2015 to provide an income estimate).
- Filing the wrong FAFSA. Depending on the time of year you are completing the FAFSA, there may be two different FAFSA’s available. If you are seeking aid for the 2016-17 award year (July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017), you must submit a 2016-17 FAFSA. If you are planning to take summer classes, ask your college’s financial aid office which FAFSA you should complete.
- Confusing student and parent information. Not surprisingly, lots of parents complete FAFSA on behalf of their students. But it’s important to remember that the FAFSA is the student’s application. When the FAFSA says “you” or “your,” it’s referring to the student. If the question is targeted to the parent, it definitely specifies that.
- Having the wrong parent complete the form. When parents are divorced or separated, you need to make sure the right one completes the form. The parent responsible for filling out the FAFSA will be the one with whom the student has lived for most of the year (more than 50 percent).
- Entering the wrong legal name. Make sure that the name you provide exactly matches what it says on your social security card. If you’re Elizabeth for the Social Security Administration, don’t suddenly become Liz for FAFSA. The same goes for Bubba or Billy Bob. And don’t forget the hyphen or drop one of your last names just because your parents are no longer together. The FAFSA verifies this information with the Social Security Administration and if names do not match, there will be delays in processing.
- Leaving a blank field. The most frequent mistake made by applicants is leaving a field blank. If the answer is zero or the question does not apply to you, write in “0.” If you leave a question blank, the processor assumes you forgot to answer, and too many blanks may cause miscalculation or an application rejection.
- Using commas or decimal points in numeric fields. Save yourself some grief and always round to the nearest dollar.
- Providing an incorrect Social Security number or Date of Birth. Check and double check every number you enter in these fields. Errors can be as simple as reversing digits or entering a parent’s SSN in place of the student’s. This REALLY slows down the process. No aid will be awarded until all numbers are correct and match what the feds already have in the system. And note that if your parents do not have Social Security numbers, list 000-00-0000—do not make up a number or include a Taxpayer Identification Number.
- Failing to count yourself as a member of the household. The student for whom the FAFSA is being completed must be counted as a member of the household. FAFSA has a specific definition of how your or your parents’ household size should be determined. Follow these instructions carefully.
- Leaving the question about drug-related offenses blank. If you’re unsure or embarrassed, contact the Information Center instead of leaving this field blank. A conviction doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from getting aid.
- Failing to report parents’ financial information. If you are considered a dependent student for purposes of FASA, you will need to provide information about your legal parent(s) on the form. If your parents are divorced or separated, how you fill out FAFSA depends on whether your parents live together or not. And if you have a stepparent, your stepparent’s financial information must be reported in addition to that of your custodial parent.
- Entering the wrong tax amount paid. Income tax is not the same as income. Use the 1040 federal tax return for income and reporting taxes paid. Do NOT use your W-2 form for this purpose. This is where the new IRS data retrieval tool may help you avoid errors.
- Neglecting to register with the Selective Service. If you are a male, aged 18-26, you must register with the Selective Service. Failure to register will make you ineligible federal student aid. Several states also make Selective Service registration required for state aid and for matricularion at public colleges and universities.
- Listing only one college. Colleges can no longer see all the schools you’ve added to your FAFSA. So you should add any college you are considering, even if you are not sure whether you will actually apply or be accepted. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, follow the instructions provided.
- Failing to sign the FAFSA form. This sounds like a “duh” moment, but you’d be surprised how many manage to screw this up. If you’re one of less than 2 percent filling out the paper FAFSA, be sure to sign it. If you’re filing electronically, use your FSA ID. Otherwise your FAFSA is left incomplete. If you would like confirmation that your FAFSA has been completed, check your status immediately after you submit online.
- Forgetting to update tax information. If you submit the FAFSA before filing your taxes, you will have to estimate income and tax information. Once your taxes are complete (hopefully by April 15th), you must amend your Student Aid Report (SAR) by going to the corrections page on the FAFSA website. Do this as soon as possible, as over- and underestimating taxes can affect the amount of aid you receive, and colleges will not finalize your aid package until you’ve provided 2015 tax information.
- Missing deadlines. Financial aid is given out on a first come first serve basis. Those who submit the FAFSA early and correctly are placed in the front of the line for aid. In the way of a reminder, the FAFSA website provides a list of known state filing deadlines. But since priority filing dates vary significantly by college, you’ll need to check with individual financial aid offices to get specific deadlines.
- Neglecting to coordinate related forms. These forms include CSS PROFILE, Institutional, or Verification forms. They ask for much of the same information as the FAFSA, but are filed separately. The key is to be consistent on all the forms. Colleges will compare answers and any discrepancies could result in lost aid.
- Deliberately providing misinformation. It’s never a good idea to lie to the federal government.
- Failing to file FAFSA. Families come up with all kinds of reasons for not filing: “It’s too hard” or “It takes too much time” or “We won’t qualify.” By not completing FAFSA, you risk losing what could be thousands of dollars to help pay for college. Contrary to popular belief there is no cut-off to qualify for federal aid. Retirement and home equity are excluded. And virtually everyone qualifies for a federal loan. Don’t make assumptions—complete the application and find out for sure! Sadly, stuff happens. Life can take unexpected turns, and you’re much better off having a FAFSA on file in case an unexpected emergency changes your financial situation.
You can learn more about federal student aid by viewing or downloading any of the various resources provided by the office of Federal Student Aid.
And if you need more specific help, contact the Department of Education's Federal Student Aid Information Center's hotline, 800-433-3243.