It's not too late for high school seniors to apply for financial aid for the 2015–16 academic year. To obtain the best financial aid package possible, students must complete all aid applications thoroughly and accurately. This is particularly important for The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which is required to qualify for almost all college aid. Providing incorrect or incomplete information can slow down the application process, allowing others to sprint ahead in the race for a limited pot of aid dollars.
When a student completes the FAFSA, the information is assessed by the agencies and institutions from which aid is requested, so accuracy is important. Following are some of the most common mistakes that students and parents make regarding the FAFSA.
1. Not filing a FAFSA
The biggest mistake is not completing the FAFSA at all. Most students receive some form of merit- or need-based aid—but only if they apply. As we’ve said, the FAFSA is required for almost all financial aid programs, including college grants and scholarships, as well as state and federal grants and loans. And believe it or not, many types of financial aid have no income cutoff.
If the student is prepared and has all the necessary materials ready, completing the FAFSA should take less than a half hour. (For a list of the items needed to complete the form, see 11 Things to Know About the FAFSA.)
2. Not filing on time
For high school seniors, January 1 is the start date for filing the FAFSA for the following academic year. Many states and colleges have very early financial aid deadlines, and a lot of financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first served basis. So it is to the student’s advantage to file as early as possible.
It is also advantageous to file the FAFSA online. Applications filed electronically are likely to be processed more quickly and are more likely to be accurate. The web-based application is designed to catch common errors as the student completes the form, which could help avoid costly mistakes.
3. Not following the directions
For those who like to jump right into a task, breezing past the directions, the FAFSA can be a challenge. It is crucial to read all of the FAFSA directions carefully and follow them to the letter.
Why so picky? A certain percentage of FAFSA applications are selected for verification. For those whose applications are chosen, verification can slow down the application process, putting the student at a disadvantage for receiving the full amount of potential aid available to him or her. Decrease the chances of having your application chosen for verification by making sure that it is completed exactly as directed.
4. Providing incorrect or incomplete information
The FAFSA also must be completed thoroughly and accurately. Here are some quick tips to avoid the most common errors:
- Don’t leave any blanks. If the answer to a question is zero, enter “0.” If the question does not apply, enter “not applicable.”
- Double-check all Social Security and driver’s license numbers. Also make sure your student uses his or her correct legal name — the same name that appears on the Social Security card.
- Don’t forget to sign the application. Both the dependent student and the student's parents must sign either on the paper application or electronically using PIN numbers.
- Report all taxed and untaxed income, not just the income that shows up on your student’s and your W-2s or 1099s. In the case of divorced parents, the stepparents’ financial information must be reported as well. The easiest way to make sure income is correctly reported is to fill out the FAFSA electronically and use the site’s IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which will pull financial information straight from your IRS form(s).
If you and your teen haven’t completed your taxes yet, use the previous year’s taxes to estimate income, and then use the DRT to automatically update the FAFSA once your taxes are complete. All updates are automatically distributed to the institutions to which your student is applying.
It’s worth repeating how important it is to file as close to January 1 as possible. Do not wait until you have filed your taxes to file the FAFSA.
- Round all numbers to the nearest dollar. Don’t use commas or decimal points in the numeric fields.
- Report the correct number of household members. If the student is still a dependent, he or she must be included in the parents’ total household size, regardless of the student’s place of residence. It’s also important for the student to accurately report the correct permanent mailing address, not a temporary summer or campus address.
If a new child will be born into the family before or during the award year and the student and/or the student’s parents will provide more than half of that child’s support, the new child should be included as a member of the household.
- Accurately report the student’s status as dependent versus independent. The process for declaring a child as “dependent” versus “independent” is the same for the FAFSA as for the IRS. If the student is a declared dependent for tax purposes, he or she is a dependent for the FAFSA.
Note that married students must report their correct marital status as of the date the FAFSA is signed. And make sure the “head of household” filing status is correct, as well.
- Males must register with the U.S. Selective Service. Males between the ages of 18 and 26 must register with the Selective Service to be eligible for Federal financial aid. If this is a concern, note that no formal military draft is in place at this time. If one is instituted, conscientious objectors will have an opportunity to file an exemption based on their objections at that time.
5. Attaching a bunch of extra stuff
If you want to appear extra diligent by attaching a lot of additional documentation (such as income tax returns) with the FAFSA, don’t. Any extra material you send will be destroyed. And don’t leave “helpful” notes in the margins of the form. Any additional information you send is likely to just slow down your application.
If the FAFSA doesn’t provide the full picture of your financial situation, the place to note that is in a letter to the financial aid office at the college or university. The institution has the ability to alter your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to better reflect your ability to pay.
By avoiding these common errors, your student will greatly increase hir or her chances of claiming the maximum amount of aid available, whether that aid be grants, loans, and/or scholarships. An accurate FAFSA is the first step in keeping the total amount of student debt as low as possible.
Should either parents or students have any questions while compleinge the FAFSA, the FAFSA Help page includes not only a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), but also email and live chat inquiry options. Want to talk to a real human? Call 1-800-4FED-AID.
For more financial aid tips, check out these related blog posts:
- The Top 5 Tips for Receiving the Best Financial Aid Package Possible
- College Grants: Following the Recession, College Is a Buyer’s Market
- 11 Things to Know About the FAFSA
For other resources to help your student prepare for college, visit us at www.doorwaytocollege.org.