The FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a form required by the federal and state governments as well as colleges for students that wish to qualify for financial aid. Outside of scholarships
, financial aid is the most helpful way to pay for school, and it's not just for those that can demonstrate financial need. The FASFA application asks questions about a student’s personal and familial financial circumstances in order to determine how much they can pay for college.
Unfortunately, the FAFSA application isn’t a short form that you can simply fill out in a few minutes. It takes just under an hour to complete, according to the U.S. Department of Education
. Fortunately, it only takes 10 minutes to correct it, which is oftentimes necessary given that mistakes are pretty common.
A mistake on your FAFSA
can delay the processing of your application for financial aid. About 30% of all FAFSAs are selected for verification, a process intended to identify and correct common errors. Some colleges voluntarily require 100% of FAFSAs to undergo verification. If your FAFSA is verified and contains errors, it can cost you.
To avoid these errors, get started early – when the FAFSA becomes available on October 1 – 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 is also helpful in preventing errors. It 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, saving you time and hassle.
Do not, however, wait until you file your federal income tax returns
to file the FAFSA application. Some states have very early deadlines for state grants, and some states award their grants on a first-come, first-served basis.
Technically, the FAFSA has an 20-month application cycle. That means that the FAFSA deadline for the form just released on October 1 is June 30, 2021, to qualify for federal student aid. However, if you want to qualify for state aid, you need to submit your application much sooner. For example, if you’re from Michigan, you need to submit your form by the state FAFSA deadline on March 1, 2020, in order to qualify for state aid.
Many states, though, request that students submit the form as soon after October 1 as possible, as mentioned above. With that, students and their families can sometimes be working too quickly when filing the FASA, which could also lead to mistakes.
As you start the form, use the FAFSA checklist
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. Also, keep these things in mind in order to create the perfect FAFSA the first time around.
Avoid the most common FAFSA 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 prior prior year's income tax return to make sure you did not overlook any source of income, such as interest and dividends. Take advantage of the IRS Tool in order to avoid mistakes on this part of the form.
• Don't forget to report all the required sources of untaxed income. These include veterans' noneducation benefits, 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 application.
• 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 FSA ID.
• Remember to file on time. Priority for programs with limited funds is often given to students filing the FAFSA as soon as possible once it's released. The form will be made available on October 1, but you should complete it well before the FAFSA application deadline.
• 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 website
, or call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
• Create your FSA ID
before you start the form. Not only do you need this FSA ID to complete the form, you also need it to make corrections. It acts as your electronic signature on the FASFA as well. Students and parents need their own separate FSA IDs.
While filing the FAFSA can be time consuming, there are so many tools and tips provided along the way to keep you on track and prevent you from making mistakes. Though mistakes are common, they should be avoided at all costs. In the long run, these mistakes could actually cost you financial aid dollars.
Ultimately, if your FASFA is pulled to be verified and mistakes are found, you can work with the U.S. Department of Education or your financial aid administrator to help correct the issues. Owning up to the mistake is far better than intentionally making one or realizing you’ve made one and neglecting to fix it.
A correct FAFSA form can be your best asset in securing financial aid to pay for college, in addition to college scholarships
. Get started on the form sooner rather than later, and do your best to make it perfect the first time around.