If you’ve got a college-bound kid, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can feel overwhelming — especially if it’s your first time navigating the financial aid process.
That’s because the form features more than 100 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 ones can hold up your application process and potentially cost you in aid dollars.
And it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re filling out the FAFSA: According to recent research from the College Board, schools are increasing their grants and financial aid packages to compete for students, with about three-quarters of full-time students now receiving grant aid that doesn’t have to be repaid.
So take a little extra care when providing your schools with the information they need so you can make sure you’re getting the aid your family needs. Here, we flag some common mistakes to avoid when filing out the FAFSA.
1. NOT FILING THE FAFSA AT ALL
Maybe people assume their kids won’t be eligible for need-based aid because of their income level, or perhaps they’re intimidated by the application process. Whatever the reason, many families choose not to complete the FAFSA form — and that can be a huge mistake.
According to the National College Access Network (NCAN), only about 61 percent of college-bound high-school seniors filed the FAFSA for the 2018 to 2019 academic year. By not completing the application, however, students are leaving billions of dollars in federal financial aid on the table, which includes grants, loans and work-study programs, as well as aid from many states and institutions.
“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. Besides, it’s free, and factors other than income, like family size and the number of children in college, are also considered when determining aid eligibility. “You might be pleasantly surprised that you are, in fact, eligible for aid,” she says.
2. WAITING UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE
Sure, the deadline to apply for federal aid isn’t until June 30, 2020 for the 2019 to 2020 academic year, but it’s still in your best interest to file the FAFSA as soon as it becomes available. (Tip: The latest FAFSA became available October 1). For one thing, many states and colleges have their own earlier priority financial aid deadlines. Also, these funds tend to be limited and awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Plus, filing 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 your middle name or a nickname and accidentally enter that as your first name 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.
Something else to watch out for? Confusing student information for parent information, and vice versa. “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 2019 to 2020 school year, that would be your 2017 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.
Also good to know: Using the IRS DRT can lower your chances of being selected for verification, the process a school uses to confirm that the data you provided is correct. “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 or veterans noneducation benefits. Assets should 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, 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 only affordable choice is the most local public school. 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
Before you close that browser, log off the myStudentAid mobile app or mail in your FAFSA, don’t forget to sign it! “I do think by the time people get to the end they’re ready to be done and 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 fluctuate 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: In order to receive aid every year you attend school, you must renew your FAFSA every academic year, too. Luckily, once students are in college, the institution usually does a good job of reminding or nudging them to renew.