It never fails. As soon as October 1 rolls around (the day the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid form becomes available), we start seeing panic set in on parents’ and students’ faces. So we thought this would be a good time to share tips from the folks at the National Association of Student Financial Aid (NASFA). NASFA, by the way, is an organization made up of more than 22,000 student financial assistance professionals at nearly 3,000 colleges, universities and career schools across the country. Here is their advice:
Apply early. Because many states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for nonfederal student aid—which may have early deadlines or limited funds— the earlier you apply, the more money in the available till. As of 2015, you’re allowed to complete FAFSA using tax returns from two years prior.
Apply online. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administration (NASFAA) recommends that you complete the FAFSA form online. For one thing, it’s easier. The online form uses skip-logic to only ask relevant questions and gives you the option of auto-populating the form with your prior-prior year IRS data. The FAFSA website is designed to catch common application errors. Plus, online applications are processed faster.
Start by creating separate unique IDs. Even though the FAFSA form is meant for students to complete, everyone knows parents get majorly involved in the process. That said, two unique FSA IDs are needed to complete the form online: the parent’s and the student’s. That means the student must create his/her own FSA ID and, as part of the registration process, an email address and mobile phone number—both of which cannot be shared by a parent or guardian.
Know who’s who. Remember, the FAFSA form is principally the student’s application—“you” or “your” generally refers to the student. So when completing FAFSA, pay attention to whether you’re on a student or a parent page of the form; the vertical banner along the form’s left side will tell you.
Avoid common errors. Making mistakes on the FAFSA form can hurt you in two ways. One, you could delay progress toward completing the review of your application. Two, delaying progress could mean limiting the amount of aid you’re eligible to receive. According to NASFA, here are the most common errors:
- Blank fields: instead of leaving a field blank, enter a “0” or “not applicable” on the form.
- Commas/decimal points in number fields: always round to the nearest dollar amount.
- Incorrect Social Security/driver’’s license number: triple-check these numbers for accuracy; if you don’t have a social security number, enter 000-00-0000; never make up a number or use a Taxpayer ID number.
- Incorrect name: use your legal name, the same one that appears on your Social Security card.
- Incorrect address: be sure to use your permanent address, not a temporary school or summer address.
- Wrong income tax amount: this should be the amount shown on the household’s income tax return from two years prior—not your W-2 form(s).
- Incorrect Adjusted Gross Income (AGI): in most cases, the AGI amount and the total income from working are not the same; AGI is generally larger than total income from working.
- Failure to register with the Selective Service: if you are a male, age 18-26, you must register with the Selective Service; otherwise, you become ineligible for federal student aid.
- Forgetting to list the college: make sure you include the Federal School Code for the college(s) you are applying to attend. [READ THE FULL LIST]
Even if you tape these tips to your computer, completing the FAFSA form is a time-consuming and intimidating task. Sometimes the best way to get off to a good start is simply to shift the burden of responsibility to a broader set of shoulders; namely, ours. Bring it on: that’s the quickest way to wipe the panic off your face.