Going to college is expensive, and it seems to get more expensive every year. That’s why parents and students turn to the FAFSA application to explore their chances of obtaining financial help for college expenses.
FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility for financial aid, which can take the form of grants, loans, and work-study funds.
Every year, billions of dollars are handed out to eligible students who submit a FAFSA application. But those funds aren’t available to you if you don’t apply. Believe it or not, it’s recommended that every student considering college fill out the FAFSA form. Some students think they won’t qualify for financial aid because their parents earn too much money, or they already have a college savings plan. However, what a lot of students and parents don’t realize is that the majority of students who submit a FAFSA are eligible for at least some form of funding. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2014-2015 school year, 86% of first-time, full-time undergrads received some type of financial aid.
One important thing to note is that the FAFSA should be submitted every year you’re attending college. The deadline for submitting a FAFSA application varies depending on which state you live in and what school year the aid is for. To determine which deadline applies to you, visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa#deadlines. Regardless of when your FAFSA deadline is, you should keep in mind that some schools award financial aid on a “first-come, first-served” basis, so it’s best to apply as soon as possible. You can submit your application as early as October 1st each year.
Before you jump into your application, you should first determine whether you qualify as a “dependent” student, or an “independent” student. This distinction is very important, as a dependent student must enter both their own financial information, and their parents’ financial information on the form, while an independent student only needs to enter their own information. To help determine which type of student you are, visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/dependency.
It’s also important to gather some specific information and items before starting the application process, such as:
- Driver’s license or other eligible form of government ID
- Previous year's tax returns for students and/or parents
- Social Security numbers for students and/or parents (or Alien Registration Numbers for non-U.S. citizens)
- Federal school codes for the school you’re attending, or the schools you’ll be applying to
- Records of untaxed income, such as child support
- Other important financials like bank statements and investment records
You can easily complete and submit your application online, just be sure to do so via the official FAFSA website: https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa. Keep in mind that FAFSA will never charge you to submit an application, so if you see any mention of fees, or are prompted to enter your credit card information, it should serve as a warning that you’re on site that is not affiliated or endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.
If you submit your application on the FAFSA website, it will be processed faster than if you sent in your application by postal mail, and it’s likely to be more accurate because the FAFSA website is designed to automatically catch common errors. With an online application, you can also save and continue your FAFSA form at any time using an FSA ID. An FSA ID consists of a username and password that can be used to log into the FAFSA website.
It’s important to go into the FAFSA application process with a clear head, and be careful not to rush through the form. Providing the wrong information on a FAFSA application could delay processing and impact your chances of getting financial assistance. Here are some common errors to watch out for when completing your form:
- Entering the wrong permanent address;
- Leaving fields empty. Blank fields can cause miscalculations and ultimately lead to a rejected application. To avoid this, enter a “0” or “not applicable” instead of leaving a field blank, if it doesn’t apply to you;
- Listing an incorrect Social Security number or driver's license number. Double and triple-check these numbers to ensure they are entered accurately;
- Forgetting to sign and date the application;
- Using commas or decimal points in numeric fields. Numbers should always be rounded to the nearest dollar;
- Listing student or parent marital statuses incorrectly;
- Entering the wrong amount of federal income tax paid. You should obtain this amount from your income tax return, NOT your W-2 form;
- Listing your “Adjusted Gross Income” as equal to your “Total Income”. These figures are different; generally, Adjusted Gross Income is larger than Total Income;
- Forgetting to list the college(s) the student is applying to, or planning on attending.
Although there’s a lot involved with submitting a FAFSA application, it can greatly pay off in the end. There’s a good chance you could receive the funding necessary to make your college dreams a reality, but you’ll never know unless you take the time to apply.