FAFSA missteps can delay the processing of your application, which isn't ideal for state and college aid given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Avoid these common mistakes:
1. Not filing
Even if you don't think you'll qualify for need-based aid, a completed FAFSA is required to apply for federal student loans, and to qualify for many universities' merit-based aid. Plus, many families are wrong about their qualifications.
In a 2015 study, it was estimated that 2 million students who didn't file the FAFSA in 2011-2012 would have qualified for Pell Grants of about $4,700 apiece.
The changes to the FAFSA have created a unique overlap this fall: Forms are available for two academic years, both of which use data from tax year 2015. Make sure you're completing the correct form for next year, the 2017-2018 academic year.
3. Missing financial aid deadlines
If you file the FAFSA late, you may miss out on some financial aid.
4. Repeating tax-return deadlines
You will be surprised common tax-return missteps, like swapping digits on your Social Security number or other figures, are also common on the FAFSA. Porting in data from your tax return can help avoid this problem on many questions, but it's still smart to double-check all figures before submitting your forms.
5. Filing for “you”
Remember that the student is the applicant, the parent is the parent. Although a parent is filling out the FAFSA, on most of the application, references to "you" or "your" is asking for the student's information. Wrong data here will result in numbers gauging aid eligibility as if the parent is going to college, rather than the child.
6. Don't be confused by the term “investments”
The FAFSA instructions concerning investments are confusing. Even though qualified retirement plans and the family home are investments, they are not reported as investments on the FAFSA.
7. Errors in student or parent marital status
You must report marital status as of the date the FAFSA is filed. You cannot anticipate a future change in status.
8. Reporting the wrong parent’s financial information (if parents are divorced)
It is generally beneficial to have the parent with the lower income complete the FAFSA. Ideally, the divorced or separated parent who handles the FAFSA will be the one with the lowest income. That's because only his or her finances will be shared on the aid form.
9. Failing to account for the step parent factor
Step parent income and assets must be reported, even if there is a prenuptial agreement. This can reduce aid eligibility. But if the stepparent has children from a previous marriage, it can increase aid eligibility. The stepparent can count them in household size and the number in college (if they are enrolled at least half-time in college) if the stepparent provides more than half their support, even if they don’t live with the stepparent.
10. Reporting wrong tax filing status (e.g., head of household)
Certain tax filing statuses are error prone, especially head of household status. Just because a tax filing status will result in a lower tax liability doesn’t mean you are entitled to use it.
11. assuming income cut-off
Contrary to popular belief, there is no income cut-off when it comes to federal student aid.
12. Not Getting an FSA ID Ahead of Time
FAFSA has made big changes this year in order to increase security. Students and parents can no longer use a Federal Student Aid PIN to log in and sign the FAFSA online. You must, instead, use the new FSA ID—a username and password. Once you register for an FSA ID, you may need to wait up to three days before you can use it to sign your FAFSA. If you don’t want your FAFSA to be delayed, register for an FSA ID now. If you’re a dependent student, your parent will need to create an FSA ID too.
13. Waiting to Fill Out
The FAFSA Until After You File Taxes Because some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s important to fill out the FAFSA early.
14. Not Filing by the Deadline
States, schools, and the federal government each have their own FAFSA deadlines. To maximize the amount of your financial aid, you should fill out your FAFSA (and any other financial aid applications that may be required by your state or school), by the earliest of these three deadlines, if not sooner!
15. Not Reading Definitions Carefully
When it comes to completing the FAFSA, you want to read each definition and question carefully. Too many students see delays in their financial aid for simple mistakes that could have been easily avoided.
Don’t rush through these questions:
- Your Number of Family Members (Household size): The FAFSA has a specific definition of how your or your parents’ household size should be determined. Read the instructions carefully. Many students incorrectly report this number.
- Legal Guardianship: One question on the FAFSA asks: “As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you in legal guardianship?” Many students incorrectly answer “yes” here. For this question, the definition of legal guardianship does not include your parents, even if they were appointed by a court to be your guardian. You are also not considered a legal guardian of yourself.
16. Listing only one college
Two-thirds of freshmen FAFSA applicants list only one college on their applications. Do not make this mistake! Colleges can’t see the other schools you’ve added, so you should add ANY college you are considering to your FAFSA, even if you aren’t sure whether you’ll apply or be accepted. It doesn’t hurt your application to add more schools. If you’re applying to more than 10 schools, follow these steps.
17. Not Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool
For many, the most difficult part about filling out the FAFSA is entering in the financial information. But now, thanks to a partnership with the IRS, students and parents who are eligible can automatically transfer the necessary tax info into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
18. Not Signing the FAFSA
So many students answer every single question that is asked, but fail to actually sign the FAFSA with their FSA ID and submit it. This happens for many reasons, maybe they forgot their FSA ID, or their parent isn’t with them to sign with the parent FSA ID, so the FAFSA is left incomplete. Don’t let this happen to you. If you don’t have or don’t know your FSA ID, register for one. If you would like confirmation that your FAFSA has been submitted, you can check your status immediately after you submit your FAFSA online.
19. Don't procrastinate
If you procrastinate until April, when your income taxes are due, you could miss deadlines for state financial aid assistance, as well as help from your child's school. If completing your income tax promptly is impossible, fill out the FAFSA with estimated numbers. If estimating, you can log back into your FAFSA account with the updated figures later.
20. Failing to Ask for help
When filling out the FAFSA, you can obtain help through the government's toll-free number: (800) 433-3243. You can also take advantage of the government's online chat sessions by using FAFSA on the Web Customer Service Live Help from Monday through Saturday.
21. Failing to Correct mistakes
You can correct errors after you've submitted your FAFSA. Return to your online form and click on "Make FAFSA Corrections." The government will process your changes within three to five days.
22. Failure to Collect a "tax scholarship"
Students and families can get several kinds of tax breaks for their educational expenses. Low- and middle-income families can collect American Opportunity tax credits (AOTC) of up to $2,500 per tax year.
Another tax deduction option is the lifetime learning credit, which grants up to $2,000 per tax year. It's an either-or situation for families, though; the lifetime learning credit and the AOTC cannot both be applied for by the same student in the same year.
23. Failure to Get a late-deadline scholarship
If the due dates for many large merit-based scholarships have passed, use the web to find scholarships and scout around your community for any remaining opportunities. Sites such as Fastweb.com match a student's profile against a database of scholarships and only consider applications that are still available.