Filling out the form is free and every family with a college-bound child should fill it out.
Take care to input all of the required details correctly as even a small mistake can create big problems.
List every college you may apply to, even if there’s just a slim chance you’ll be applying there.
If you’ve got a college-bound child, filling out the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) can feel overwhelming—especially if it’s your first time navigating the financial aid process.
And that’s understandable. After all, the form features extensive questions about your family’s financial situation, and it takes most people about an hour to fill out. As form fatigue sets in, it can be easy for mistakes to happen. Unfortunately, even minor mistakes in your FAFSA application can hold up the process and potentially cost you in aid dollars.
Because the process is undeniably complicated, on December 27, 2020, Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act, which aims to overhaul federal student aid process. So, for the 2024-2025 school year, the Department of Education will unveil a new and much shorter form with far fewer questions and revised formulas for determining who will qualify for aid and how much they’ll receive. However, the new form, which is typically available October 1, now won’t be available until December 2023. But if you’re applying for aid for the 2023-24 school year, that form has been available since October 1, 2022; applications will close on June 30, 2024.
No matter when you fill out the form, it’s worth taking a little extra care when providing your schools with the information they need in order to make sure you’re getting the aid your family needs. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when filling out the FAFSA.
Common FAFSA Mistakes
1. Not filling out the FAFSA at all
Even if you’re intimidated by the application process or don’t think your child will not be eligible for need-based aid because of your family’s income level, you should submit a FAFSA application. Not doing so is one of the biggest mistakes that families make.
According to the National College Access Network (NCAN), only about 59 percent of college-bound, high-school graduates from the class of 2022 completed a FAFSA. By not completing the application, however, students are potentially leaving billions of dollars in federal financial, state, and institutional aid on the table, including grants, loans and work-study programs.
“Filling out the FAFSA is really a sign that you’re looking for help paying for college from multiple sources,” explains Kim Cook, NCAN’s executive director, who encourages everyone to complete the form. Cook notes that the application is free, and points out the fact that factors other than income, including family size and the number of children in college, are also part of the equation. “You might be pleasantly surprised that you are, in fact, eligible for aid,” she says.
2. Waiting until the last minute to fill out the FAFSA
For the 2023-2024 school year, the federal deadline to apply for financial aid using the FAFSA is June 30, 2024. But it’s still in your best interest to file the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available.
Why? First, it’s important to note that many states and colleges have their own application deadlines, which are in many cases earlier than the federal deadline. In order to qualify for state aid or aid directly from your colleges, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA by their deadlines. Second, financial aid tends to be limited, and awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more likely you will get the maximum amount of aid you are entitled to.
Additionally, filling out the FAFSA sooner means you’ll have an earlier picture of at least your federal aid eligibility. “It’s kind of an assurance that I have, say, $10,000 available for my education off the bat, so I feel more comfortable and confident going into a college search knowing that I have a commitment in my pocket,” Cook says.
3. Inputting incorrect info
Even minor typos can cause major delays in the application process, says Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). Social Security number mix-ups are a prime example of this, she adds.
Social Security numbers are matched against government databases to determine a student’s eligibility to receive federal aid. Entering the wrong numbers means your identity cannot be confirmed, let alone your eligibility. It could even mean having to submit an entirely new FAFSA application.
“Being just one digit off can cause quite a mess, so I always tell people to be very careful,” says McCarthy.
Same goes for your name. Let’s say you go by a nickname and accidentally enter that instead of the legal name on your birth certificate or Social Security card. This, too, will halt the application process until you produce documentation to confirm your legal name, McCarthy says.
Another watchout: Confusing student information for parent information, and vice versa, throughout the form. “Again, this can be a little bit slow to disentangle and correct after the fact,” McCarthy says. So always pay close attention to whose information the form is asking for (student or parent) as you’re filling out the FAFSA.
4. Not using the IRS data retrieval tool
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) allows applicants to automatically populate their FAFSA forms with income and tax information from two tax years prior. (For the 2023 to 2024 school year, that would be your 2021 tax return.)
Most families who file taxes are eligible to use this tool, so if you’re one of them, use it, say our experts. Not only does it save time, it also reduces the odds of making a costly mistake. Any figure that’s off will skew your eligibility calculation, Cook warns, and could also hold up the application process.
Also good to know: Using the IRS DRT can lower your chances of being selected for a verification process. “They know your chances for error are less than somebody who manually typed in that information,” McCarthy says.
5. Not reporting income correctly
It’s important to make sure you disclose only relevant sources of income on the FAFSA; overstating or understating your finances runs the risk of not getting the correct award, Cook says.
Sources you should note on the FAFSA include untaxed income such as child support, interest payments, workers’ compensation, and veterans noneducation benefits.
Assets should also be listed, including savings and checking account balances, and the current value of investments such as stocks, bonds, and real estate (but not your family home). Qualified retirement accounts such as an IRA, 401(k), 403(b), and pension plan should not be reported as assets.
“Read the questions very carefully,” Cook advises. “And when in doubt, consult the help menu, a school counselor, a financial aid office at an institution where you're applying or even the 1-800 help number for the Federal Student Aid Information Center.”
6. Listing just one college
Even if there’s just a slim chance you’ll be applying to a school, go ahead and list it on your FAFSA. You can list up to 10 colleges when you first file, and can then add or remove schools after you receive your Student Aid Report. It’s never a bad idea to open yourself up to more options, Cook says.
For instance, some students may think the most affordable choice is the local public university. But many times, “private schools have more institutional funds to give students and can really match the affordability of a public school that has less institutional aid to offer,” she adds.
And if you don’t end up applying to all the schools you list? No harm, no foul. “They just don’t do anything with your FAFSA information,” McCarthy says.
7. Forgetting to sign the FAFSA
Before you close that browser or mail in your physical FAFSA forms, don’t forget to sign the application!
“I do think by the time people get to the end they’re ready to be done and are maybe not reading as closely,” McCarthy says. “But not signing basically stops the processing of the FAFSA form, so it’s very important to get that piece done.”
If you complete the FAFSA electronically and don’t receive a confirmation relatively quickly—within a day or two—go back and double check to make sure you actually signed it where necessary.
8. Forgetting to renew every year
A family’s financial situation can easily change from year to year, which means eligibility for student financial aid can change as well. “It could go either way—it could be a more generous package or it could scale back, depending on what has changed as far as income, family size and number of children in college, in particular,” Cook says.
What doesn’t change: You must renew your FAFSA every academic year to receive aid. The good news is that once students are in college, the institution usually does a good job of reminding them to renew.