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How to Apply for Financial Aid: 5 Tips That Can Help You

The world of higher education is full of acronyms.

There’s the SAT and ACT college entrance exams, the results of which largely determine your chances of gaining admission to the school of your choice. Once you arrive on campus, you’ll be seeking a B.A. or B.S. degree. And if you choose to continue your studies beyond undergrad, you’ll need to take one of the several admissions tests such as the GRE, LSAT or MCAT before you can pursue an M.A., M.S., J.D., M.D. or other postgraduate degrees.

You get the idea.

When it comes to reducing your future student loan burden and getting help paying for college, there’s yet another acronym of equal – if not higher – importance. It’s the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Completing the government form is a must if you want to qualify for various forms of financial assistance, including grants, work-study, and many scholarships.

The U.S. Department of Education awards more than $150 billion annually to college students, but it’s the FAFSA that determines your eligibility for such funds. Unfortunately, filling out the form (and its 100-plus questions) is a daunting prospect for many students, leading many to make costly mistakes during the process; in fact, statistics show more than 80%  of submitted FAFSAs have at least one error.

Below we’re sharing five essential tips to help you avoid some common missteps and make the most of your FAFSA.

Tip #1: Know the deadlines—and prioritize accordingly.

The federal government has a finite amount of financial aid available – and allocates many funds on a first-come first-served basis. That means you should complete the FAFSA as soon as you can to help maximize your potential award.

Set calendar alerts or put sticky notes on your door—whatever it takes to keep you on track.  Here are the major deadlines you need to know:

  • For the 2016-2017 award year,  your deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30, 2017. Deadlines for applying for state aid may be earlier.
  • For the 2017-18 award year,  the FAFSA will be made available on Oct. 1, 2016 — that is three months earlier than the traditional Jan. 1 release.

State and school deadlines can vary  for school-specific aid. Contact any schools you’re considering to make sure you submit those forms on time, too.

You can find all the official deadlines, including your state, at the FAFSA website.

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Tip #2: Don’t wait to file your taxes first.

While it’s best to complete the FAFSA early, the application asks for tax return information for the current year. As a result, many students erroneously wait until after they file their taxes to submit the application. This will become especially relevant this fall, now that the FAFSA is available almost six months before taxes are due for 2016.

While you’ll need to update your FAFSA to correct any discrepancies once your taxes are filed, this approach ensures you throw your hat in the ring when plenty of aid is still available. It won’t count against you, and future corrections are easy with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool available within the online FAFSA application.

Tip #3: You can submit it twice if you’re applying to more than 10 schools.

If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, which is the limit on the number of entries per application, you’ll need to submit the application twice. Make sure to review the process on the official FAFSA website.

After you have submitted your FAFSA online, you’ll need to wait for the Student Aid Report (SAR) to confirm that your schools have received your information before updating and sending again. Once you have received the confirmation your first 10 schools received your information, you can make corrections to your FAFSA to update it with additional school codes. Then you’ll re-submit your application—and you’ll receive an additional SAR.

Pro-tip: As this process might take some time, make sure to list the school’s with the earliest deadlines in your first round, then you can add additional schools with later deadlines in the second round.

Tip #4: Include your parents.

For undergraduates, even if you pay your own bills and file your own taxes, you might still be considered a dependent student for the purposes of federal student aid since the definition differs from that used on federal income tax returns. You will need to include your parents’ financial information regardless of whether they will contribute to your education costs.

If you are 24 or older when you’re applying for financial aid, then you will be considered independent.  Graduate students are almost always considered independent students, and thus not required to include parents’ information when completing the FAFSA.

You can determine your dependency status by answering these questions. When in doubt, contact the financial aid office at your intended school or direct your questions to the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

Tip #5: Leave no fields behind.

While it’s recommended you submit the FAFSA online—and more than 98% of applications are submitted as such—a paper FAFSA form is available.

According to Fastweb, leaving a field blank is the most frequent mistake made with the printed option. Doing so means the FAFSA processor will assume you forgot to answer, which could render your form incomplete and cause potential delays to your award letter.

Rule of thumb: If the question doesn’t apply to you, write in a zero. (Or opt for the online form, which is easier and faster than the paper version.)

Whatever you do, don’t skip it

Making the most of your FAFSA is impossible if you fail to submit it in the first place. Even if you think your parents earn too much money for you to qualify, you should still fill out the form. It’s worth the extra effort to avoid leaving free money on the table!

The FAFSA can be lengthy and tedious for many students, but that shouldn’t deter you from filing. Students of all income levels can qualify for many types of financial aid that don’t depend on your family’s wealth. In addition, completing the form could boost your chances of getting into a school, according to Lucie Lapovsky, former president of Mercy College and educational consultant. As college admission requirements become increasingly competitive, why not take all the help you can get?

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.