December 11, 2018
9 Tips for Filing FAFSA Forms Correctly
Written by Darma Poonoosamy
The cost of college can be a concern for many families as their high school juniors and seniors prepare their applications. While parents may know that FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, exists, the tips listed below to help ease the burden of the cost of higher education might surprise you.
What is the FAFSA?
The application itself consists of about 100 questions about your family’s financial situation. Most people finish the form in about an hour, which can be a deterrent in of itself. Do not let the application intimidate you, and follow the steps below to make sure you aren’t leaving money on the table.
1. Don’t assume you aren’t eligible
FAFSA funding can come in a few forms, like loans, grants, or work-study programs, so don’t assume your family isn’t eligible based on income alone. FAFSA takes other information into account, like family size and number of children in the household that are in college, to increase eligibility for families.
2. Check your parental status
Filing financial forms like the FAFSA can be tricky for different family situations. Whether the parents in the household are married, separated, divorced, or living in different places, you can check the status here for FAFSA parent info.
Typically, married parents can file together, and if parents are divorced, the child's FAFSA will use the financial information from the parent who provided the most support in the previous 12 months. If you still aren't sure about your family's situation, refer to FAFSA's parent info link above.
3. Fill out the forms on time - or early
FAFSA forms are due at the end of June for the following academic year, but there’s no benefit to waiting until the last minute. The Federal Student Aid department has additional tools to help you not only forecast your eligibility for federal aid, but also see the deadlines for student aid for each state and academic year. Use the Federal Student Aid tools here.
Waiting until the deadline to file is the leading cause of mistakes on the FAFSA, as more applicants rush through the application without time to check their work.
4. Double check your work
With over 100 questions to enter, your best bet is take your time, and double check your submissions. A simple typo can impede filing, and affect the aid awarded in the end. FAFSA uses current government databases to match individuals for student aid, so all the correct information is required.
From reporting income to entering a student’s Social Security number, each number must be correct to verify the student and their family applying for federal aid.
5. Use the IRS DRT
The IRS created the Data Retrieval Tool, or DRT, to make the process of filing forms easier. The DRT automatically pulls in information submitted on tax forms from the two previous years. Since most family households that file taxes are eligible to use this tool, it is a great time saver, and decreases the chance of human error when entering old tax information for the FAFSA.
You can access the DRT here.
6. Only disclose relevant sources of income
Like any financial aid application, you will need to provide standard income information, but there are additional items of untaxed income and assets that the FAFSA requires you disclose as well, like:
- Veterans non-education benefitsChild support
- Interest payments
- Worker’s compensation
- Real estate beyond the primary residence
Retirement plans, like an 401(k), 403(b), or IRA, should not be reported as assets on the FAFSA.
7. List all of the colleges you’re applying to
When filing your FAFSA, you can include more than one of the colleges or universities you are applying to - up to ten separate schools.
Adding schools to your FAFSA will send your information to those institutions. This can actually work in your favor in weighing options between public and private schools. Private institutions typically have more funding they can award to students, and can match the affordability of a local public school.
If you don’t end up applying to all of the schools you listed on your FAFSA, nothing happens. The schools simply won’t process your FAFSA information as part of their financial aid disbursement decisions.
8. Sign the form
It might seem incredible, but a large number of FAFSA forms are submitted every year without a signature at the bottom of the form. It is a long form, and as it takes about an hour to fill out, it is certainly understandable that the average user sometimes logs off before filling in the electronic signature box at the very end of the form, but it’s still a necessary step. Failing to sign the form prevents the application from being processed.
How do I know if I forgot to sign the FAFSA form?
All successful submissions receive an email confirmation with 2 days. If you haven’t received one yet, chances are you’ll need to log back in to sign the form to continue the process.
9. Renew each year
For each year that you are applying for federal financial aid, you will need to fill out the FAFSA again. The aid you are awarded can fluctuate, as a family’s financial situation and dependent factors (like number of children in college) can change year to year. Once you’re enrolled at a school, chances are their financial aid office will remind you about the FAFSA, so you’ll only have to do it all alone the first time.