Fall is in the air! For most people, that means the return of warm sweaters and pumpkin spice lattes, but for students who will be attending college next fall, it also means that it is time for that fun game known as “Filling Out the FAFSA.” Some families dread filling out this application, while others take it in stride as one of the necessary steps for receiving financial aid.
The FAFSA is online and many families have started to complete it. If your family wants to have any chance of receiving federal, state, and institutional aid, or even some scholarships, you will have to complete it as the first step in determining your eligibility.
Don’t get overwhelmed by the thought, or get so bogged down in the details, that you give up. I have seen too many families miss out on receiving financial help simply because they failed to file the FAFSA. If this is your first FAFSA, here is what you need to know:
- Be prepared: If you are any type of a good scout, you know how important it is to be prepared. The first thing you want to do is get an FSA ID. This is the username and password you will use to sign into the FAFSA site. Both the student and the parent of a dependent student will need separate IDs if you want to file the FAFSA online. Then, you need to start getting your information together. There is nothing worse than finally sitting down to complete this task, and then getting pulled away to find your paperwork. You’ll need Social Security or Alien Registration numbers, as well as income and asset documentation. Students should have their list of colleges ready and also have their driver’s license nearby, if available. You should probably be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, but have your prior year’s tax returns handy as well. Have everything together, so you can work through the form in one sitting.
- Early is better: You don’t have to get online right at midnight on October 1, but it is definitely better to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. You want to leave yourself plenty of time to correct any possible errors, and also respond to requests for verification from your potential colleges. Be aware that some forms of financial aid have limited funding available, so you want to make sure you are at the top of the list.
- Deadlines can be sneaky: While you might see that you actually have until June 30 to complete the FAFSA, you could lose out on several types of aid if you wait that long. In addition to the federal programs with limited funding availability, many colleges have financial aid deadlines as early as October and November so they can look at aid as part of the entire application process. Even if you are on the fence about applying to a specific college, go ahead and have the Department of Education send them your FAFSA info so you won’t have to go back if you do decide to apply. Look on your colleges’ websites to find their specific deadlines, and don’t be late! Another deadline you might not be thinking about is your state’s financial aid deadline. Most states have some type of program to help students pay for college, but the funding can be limited there as well.
Get your FAFSA completed and submitted as early as possible and knock that item off your college to-do list. But don’t be so fast that you make mistakes – like these common errors that cause unnecessary delays. Check that your name on the FAFSA exactly matches the one on your Social Security card, double-check your Social Security number, and make sure you “sign” the form.
Then watch the various communication methods to see if you missed anything. You should receive a Student Aid Report within a few weeks which summarizes your information and shows the Expected Family Contribution, but also check your email and college portals to determine if any further information is needed.