It’s the other headed-for-college headache: not holiday-time finals, but the dreaded FAFSA.
While the thought of tackling FAFSA forms – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – generally makes parents shudder and sends students running for the hills, it’s an important piece of the college process.
FAFSA not only shows students how much federal aid they qualify for, but it can also open doors to other financial aid prospects. By submitting your FAFSA, you’re already applying for need-based aid such as federal Pell Grants or work study programs. You also need to submit a FAFSA if you want to take out a federal loan for college tuition.
Completing the FAFSA form is not a complicated process, but it’s definitely tedious, said David Gelinas, Davidson College’s senior associate dean and director of financial aid.
“It’s not exciting,” he said. “Start at the beginning and just go through it and get to the finish line.”
But before you dive in, here are tips for making the process as painless, and informed, as possible.
1. Get organized
There are a few things you need to do before you begin filling out the form.
First, look at the FAFSA submission deadlines for each college you’re applying to. They can vary.
“If five of four were March 1 and one was Feb. 15, meet the earliest deadline,” said Mary Alice Katon, director of college access programs for Communities in Schools. She said students should not to wait to find out if they’ve been admitted to the school, because acceptance letters might get mailed after FAFSA deadlines.
The government shutdown might have had an unforeseen effect on FAFSA deadlines, because tax filing deadlines have been pushed back, Gelinas said.
“That might force some adjustment of filing deadlines for schools,” he said.
Once you know your deadlines, collect your family’s tax forms, because you’ll need them if taxes haven’t been filed yet.
2. For ease, file online
It’s possible to print out the FAFSA form and mail it, but it’s much easier to fill it out online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
To submit the FAFSA online, your online signature will be in the form of a PIN (personal identification number). You can get a PIN online at www.pin.ed.gov. If you forget to do this, there will be a prompt online while you’re filling out the FAFSA to get one.
A nifty new change to the online FAFSA form is an IRS data retrieval tool or, simply put, a link you can use to automatically fill in your tax information.
But this feature won’t work if you haven’t filed your taxes yet. If that’s the case, you should enter your family’s tax numbers from last year, Katon said. Once you file your taxes, you can return to the online form, use the IRS tool to enter the new tax information and re-submit the FAFSA.
There’s also an online feature called skip logic, Gelinas said, that will automatically skip questions that don’t apply to you based on previous answers.
3. Special cases
Families can’t comment on their own special circumstances on the form, Katon said. They’ll have to contact financial aid offices to share this information.
Another change this year requires students to fill out the incomes of both parents, not just one, she said.
“Unless they’re adopted, they’re supposed to put their parents’ financial information,” she said.
Katon said she’s heard of some instances where parents say they do not want to help pay for their child’s college tuition. Even if that’s the case, they need to provide their financial information so that their child can submit a complete form.
Parental help is important because few cases deem a student a financially independent person, Katon said: You’ll be asked if you are older than 24, married, have a child to support, are a veteran, hold a master’s degree, are homeless or at risk of being homeless, or if your parents have died, to be considered for independent status.
There is a place on the form that allows you to say that parent information is unavailable, she said, but that guarantees having a conversation at a financial aid office, where officials will ask for documentation.
4. Don’t get tricked
Don’t fall for gimmicks that ask you to pay after you fill out the FAFSA form. Katon said it’s important to remember the first “f” in FAFSA stands for “free.”
Make sure, if you’re filling out the form online, that you’re at a Web address that has a “.gov” in it, which means it’s a legitimate government website.
The form also has a limited number of schools where you can choose to submit your FAFSA. If those spaces aren’t enough, send one batch and then reopen the form, change the school names and re-submit it, Katon said.
“You could put 100 schools if you want,” she said.
5. It’s a springboard
By finding out how much aid you qualify for, you can then move forward with figuring out how to finance college tuition.
Once you submit your FAFSA form, you’ll receive an SAR, or student aid report. This can take two to five days after submitting the FAFSA online, Katon said.
Because the federal government loves acronyms, you’ll find your EFC, or expected family contribution, in the student aid report. That amount is what the government expects your family to pay toward your tuition.
That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to write a check of that amount to the school you’re attending, Katon said.
Instead, it shows how much aid you qualify for. For example, she said, a report could say the government expects your family to pay $5,000 toward your tuition. If, hypothetically, Duke University costs $50,000 and Central Piedmont Community College costs $2,000 per year, you would qualify for $45,000 of aid to attend Duke but wouldn’t qualify for any aid to attend CPCC.
But that doesn’t mean Duke would give you $45,000.
“That’s when you start putting pieces together of scholarships and that type of thing,” Katon said.
6. You’re not alone
There are several options for families to learn more and have their FAFSA-related questions answered.
“If I could leave one word of advice, it’s that local high schools have workshops designed to assist families with filling the forms out, and they should take advantage of them,” Gelinas said.
There’s a FAFSA Day in each state every February, he said, which will be promoted in high schools.
Katon said high school students should receive fliers with information about workshops.
“Never be afraid to ask for help,” Gelinas said. “As financial aid professionals, this is what we do.”
He encouraged students to contact colleges and high school counselors with questions.
“There’s a lot of help out there so a family doesn’t have to wade through all of this by themselves.”