Dec 30, 2014

Winning the financial aid game—2015-16 edition

College-bound students have a better chance of winning the financial aid game by going on the offensive early. And it’s not too early to start a few practice exercises.

While the folks at the U.S. Department of Education prepare for a January 1st kickoff, work on getting in shape starting today.

Simply follow these nine easy plays from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) playbook and position your team to maximize scholarship potential by warming up before game day:

1.  Visit the FAFSA website (  Accept NO substitutes. And note—this is the FREE application for federal student aid. It is not a pay to play game. Anyone charging for the privilege of providing you with a FAFSA form or a top-secret internet link is working a scam. Don’t fall for it. Everything you need to apply for federal aid is available on the FAFSA website.  And the site is really pretty user-friendly.

2.  Apply for your PIN(s).  Do it NOW—today even. There’s really no reason to delay. Students and parents both need FAFSA Personal Identification Numbers, as they are your official signatures for electronic submissions. They are free and very easy to obtain. Again, if anyone wants to charge you for a FAFSA PIN, walk away. This is a service brought to you by your federal government.  Important note:  FAFSA is in the process of transitioning away from the PIN. For now, however, nothing is changed.  You still need to have a PIN to file your FAFSA.  The Department of Education plans to make a new user ID program (with password) available “in the spring," and you will be alerted once this happens.  In the meantime, get your PIN number and use it!

3.  Check out the videos.  The Feds know how much you're into YouTube, so they’ve put together a series of very useful videos designed to introduce you to the FAFSA.  Myths about Financial Aid” debunks legends you may have heard about who actually qualifies for aid, while “Overview of the Financial Aid Process” will introduce you to the Office of Federal Student Aid.

4.  Download ‘Federal Student Aid at a Glance.’ This two-page user-friendly guide provides a quick and easy introduction to the types of federal student aid, the application process, and eligibility requirements. It’s your basic FAFSA rule book.

5.  Note deadlines. You should complete the FAFSA as early in the New Year as humanly possible. Don’t use IRS or tax deadlines as your guide because states and individual colleges have way earlier financial aid due dates. Georgetown University, for example, posts February 1st as its deadline for FAFSA submission. If you know you won’t be filing your taxes early, you may estimate by using previous-year tax information to complete the form. Consider filing a first draft as a placeholder and then plan to go back and amend later.

6.  Download the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet. Practice makes perfect, so why not give it a try? A very popular instructional tool, the Worksheet will give you a heads up on the questions asked—in the order they are asked—as well as on the kinds of documents you will need to have handy to complete the real deal in January. Thoughtful federal officials have put everything for parents to complete in purple.  But note that this is only for practice—do not try to mail or otherwise submit this form!  There is a paper version of the FAFSA for exactly this purpose.

7.  Test Drive FAFSA4caster. While not exactly a crystal ball, this handy site will help you get an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid. You can test out different college options and compare the costs and benefits of each. If you haven’t really thought about the money yet, this is your opportunity for a reality check.

8.  Consult the Experts.  A number of nonprofit organizations have made websites and other technical materials available free of charge to families seeking answers to FAFSA-related questions.  One of the best sources of information is a book by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy, titled Filing the FAFSA:  The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  Be sure to download the 2015-16 version as it contains the most up-to-date information, including changes for the coming year. You also might want to check out the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) student and financial aid resource center available at This site helps you understand both the academic and financial aid issues related to education after high school. It also contains helpful worksheets and easy-to-understand guides, including a calendar checklist for grades 8 - 12, to help students and their families prepare for college.

9.  Bring in Reinforcements.  You don’t have to go it alone.  Over the next several months, a number of organizations will be scheduling FREE FAFSA workshops, so mark your calendar now.  Be prepared to round-up required documents as FAFSA experts will be on hand at each of these sessions to answer questions and help you complete forms.

If you have questions concerning FAFSA, the process, or the website, don’t hesitate to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). You can also contact the center by email at

In preparation for opening day, the FAFSA on the Web site will be unavailable Wednesday, December 31 from 10 p.m. through 2:00 a.m. ED on Thursday, January 1.

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