Amidst a slew of deadlines and goals, a busy student could be tempted to slap some numbers on paper to quickly consider the FAFSA complete. But sloppily filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is akin to embarking on a road trip with no GPS and an empty gas tank. A little preparation paves the way for a substantially smoother trip, and with these nine tips, you can navigate the FAFSA to arrive at the best possible outcome for future financial aid.
1. Learn the language. Ultimately, the FAFSA calculates Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which considers income, assets and size of household (the household’s number of students in college) to determine how much a student and his or her family can contribute. Keep in mind – this figure doesn’t reflect the actual total you pay for college or any specific financial aid package. For dependent students, this means parental information needs to be included; married students must be legally married on the day of filing.
2. Chart your course. Filing will take about an hour, the U.S. Department of Education estimates, assuming 55 minutes the first time and 45 for renewal. Understand which elements impact your EFC before you begin. Advisors suggest testing your plan with a free predictive tool, like the U.S. Department of Education’s FAFSA4caster, to estimate EFC.
3. Gather your documents. Prepare the items that apply to you – and plan to include your parents if filing as a dependent. Key documents include:
- Social Security number
- Driver’s license number
- Alien registration number
- Federal tax, including W-2s
- Records of investments, including real estate (but excluding your home), stocks and bonds, business and farm assets
- Bank statements, savings and checking account balances
- Records of untaxed income, including child support, interest income and veterans non-education benefits
4. File early and file online. Submitting your FAFSA as early as possible ensures the best chance at eligibility for limited funds or awards with early deadlines. Beginning with the 2017-18 FAFSA, you will report your tax information from two years ago; no need to wait to finalize 2016 income tax filing. Submitting online provides the option to pull data directly from the IRS, and reduces chances of skipping a critical field that could delay the process.
5. File – no matter what. Don’t exclude yourself based on income. Mark Kantrowitz, Finaid.com publisher, estimates households earning up to $180,000 can qualify for aid. Many federally sponsored loan programs, like Stafford Loans, require FAFSA. Additionally, finances can change – and getting aid later on can be difficult, if not strictly prohibited, if it wasn’t originally requested.
6. Tell your story. If a critical piece of your circumstances isn’t apparent in the FAFSA form, supplement with a letter and relevant documentation. For example, explain a medical situation and supply a copy of the hospital bills to support your story.
7. Be honest. While spending savings and shifting assets may help lower EFC, lying or otherwise misrepresenting your funds is fraud, which is punishable by fines up to $20,000, the possibility of prison and the likelihood of forfeiting any financial aid. Stick with the facts.
8. Check your work. A few extra minutes invested to re-read before submitting can prevent costly delays. Verify these details, which The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators highlights as commons mistakes:
- Don’t leave blanks – enter 0s instead
- Double check legal numbers, like driver’s licenses
- Use your legal name
- Use your permanent address
- Report income from your two years previous income tax – not your W-2
- Provide marital status from the day you file your FAFSA
- Report children that will be born before or during the year
- Count yourself as a student in the household attending college
- Males ages 18 to 26 must register with Selective Service to be eligible for federal student aid
- List the Federal School Code for any schools you’ve applied to or plan to attend
- Sign and date the FAFSA
9. Ask the experts. Need further guidance? Use support from FAFSA counselors directly at 800-433-3243.