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How to Apply for Financial Aid: 6 Tips to Help File Your FAFSA Early and Accurately

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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 BA or BS 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 MA, MS, JD, MD 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.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA is a free financial aid application that should be filled out by everyone with a future or current college student. Filing FAFSA 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. Each school has a limited amount of funds too, so it’s important to apply as soon as possible.

What You Need to File FAFSA to Receive Financial Aid

You need to understand your eligibility and have some important documents on hand to go through the FAFSA application process:

Understand your eligibility

The basic eligibility criteria needed when applying for federal student aid are that: 

  • You must demonstrate financial need (for most programs).
  • You must be a US citizen or an eligible noncitizen and have a valid Social Security number.
  • You must have a high school diploma or GED certificate.
  • You must be enrolled or accepted as a student in an eligible degree or certificate program.

Financial need is defined by the Federal Student Aid website as “the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) at a school and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). While COA varies from school to school, your EFC does not change based on the school you attend.”

To continue receiving federal student aid each year, you will need to maintain your eligible status. This includes making progress on your degree (as defined by your school) and refiling your FAFSA every year.

Gather your ID documents

If you are a US citizen submitting your FAFSA you will need the following forms of ID:

  • Your Social Security number.
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student.
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one.
  • Your FSA ID (or you will need to create one if you are not a returning applicant).

If you are not a US citizen applying, you will need your Alien Registration number.

Gather your tax returns

Have your federal tax information and returns handy to save time when filing your FAFSA. This will include your W2 and 1040 (and your spouse, if you are married), or any other record of money earned. If you are filing as a dependent, be sure to have the tax information for your parents as well.

Collect information about all other income sources, bank and investment accounts

Nontaxable income like welfare benefits, Social Security income, veteran’s benefits, military, or clergy allowances should be on hand when filing your FAFSA. You will also need your current bank and brokerage account statements, including information on stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.

6 Tips to Help You Easily File Your FAFSA

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

1. Know when the FAFSA filing deadlines are – and file ASAP

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:

  • When you can begin filing FAFSA the FAFSA is typically made available on October 1st before the following school year. This date is three months earlier than the traditional January 1st release.
  • Deadline for filing FAFSA  the FAFSA filing deadline is typically June 30th of the current school year. Deadlines for applying for state aid may be different.

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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2. Don’t wait to file your taxes before filing your FAFSA

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.

3. You can submit your FAFSA more than once

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.

4. Include your parents on your FAFSA forms

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.

5. Don’t leave blank fields on your FAFSA forms

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.)

6. Search for other options if financial aid doesn’t cover most of your college costs

Financial aid is a great place to start your education funding search, but it may not cover all your education expenses. Students should then turn to scholarships and grants before moving into loans, as you don’t need to pay back a scholarship or grant!

Your FAFSA is also a required step in applying for federal student loans, so there is just another reason to remember to resubmit every single year. Private student loans are another avenue to go down for education funding. Some colleges will point to a preferred lenders list, but students and parents should do their own research as well to pick the right lender for their situation.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Skip Filing Your FAFSA

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?

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