Avoid FAFSA Mistakes that Can Cost You
Avoid frustration with the FAFSA by being prepared.
By Mike Pugh
December 14, 2012
A mistake on your FAFSA can delay the processing of your application for financial aid!
Previously, 30 percent of all FAFSAs were selected for verification, a process intended to identify and correct common errors. Some colleges voluntarily required 100 percent of FAFSAs to undergo verification. Today, the US Department of Education is transitioning to a targeted verification system, where a risk model is used to identify the FAFSAs and the specific data elements that will undergo verification.
To avoid these errors, get started early and use the online version of the FAFSA. The online FAFSA has built-in “edit checks” that can catch and prevent many errors. If you use a printed version of the FAFSA, be sure to proofread your application before you submit it.
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool can be used to copy the answers to some FAFSA questions directly from your federal income tax return. If you do not modify those answers, those questions will not be subject to verification. This will reduce the likelihood that your FAFSA will be selected for verification, saying you time and hassle.
Do not, however, wait until you file your federal income tax returns to file the FAFSA. Some states have very early deadlines for state grants, and some states award their grants on a first-come, first-served basis. Some people will file their federal income tax returns early. Others file the FAFSA first, but later use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update the relevant data elements after filing their federal income tax returns.
Use the Pre-Application Worksheet to insure you’ve gathered all the necessary information. The worksheet is updated every year, so if this year isn’t available yet, keep checking until it is.
Avoid the most common mistakes:
- The most frequent mistake made on the printed form is leaving a field blank. If the answer is zero or the question does not apply to you, write in a zero. If you leave a question blank, the processor will assume that you forgot to answer.
- Use the 1040 federal tax return for income reporting and reporting taxes paid. If you use your W-2 and 1099 forms, compare them with the previous year’s income tax return to make sure you did not overlook any source of income, such as interest and dividends.
- Don’t forget to report all the required sources of untaxed income. These include Social Security, child support and workers compensation/disability income.
- Report your correct marital status. If you plan to file as a married student, you must be married on or before the date that you sign your FAFSA.
- If your parents are divorced, your stepparent’s financial information must be reported in addition to the financial information for your custodial parent.
- Include yourself in the household size. Even if you didn’t live there during the previous year, you should always include yourself as part of your parent’s household.
- Don’t forget to sign the application. If you’re filing as a dependent, both you and your parents must sign. If you file online, you and your parents can sign the form electronically using your PIN numbers.
- Remember to file on time. Priority for programs with limited funds is often given to students who file the FAFSA as soon after January 1 as possible.
- As with all forms and applications, make sure you read the instructions and questions carefully. If you’re unclear about a question or are having trouble filling out the FAFSA, check the FAQ section on the FAFSA Web site, or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
- On the paper form, follow instructions with regard to using a pen or pencil.
Make sure to fill it out right the first time, and you’ll have your financial aid award letter in no time.