5 FAFSA Considerations To Think About
If you think you’ll need to apply for federal student loans to pay for your college education, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is mandatory. Filling it out is relatively straightforward, and doing so may successfully qualify you for multiple types of federal funding. But, you may find yourself needing some guidance in filling it out, and that’s perfectly normal.
To find assistance, check to see if a local high school or community college is offering a financial aid services FAFSA prep event. If so, consider attending because you may find it helpful to listen to people experienced in filling out the application. They can offer strategies and tips that can streamline the process, and answer your questions.
And, to help, we’ve also created this helpful guide containing five FAFSA tips to assist you in navigating the FAFSA:
• Plan enough time.
• Gather together your information.
• Determine your dependent/independent student status.
• Proofread before sending.
• Be patient, yet vigilant.
We’ll explore each of these five areas in more depth. All the information mentioned below was obtained from the Federal Student Aid website .
1. Plan Enough Time
It’s important to allow yourself enough time to gather together all relevant information, ranging from Social Security numbers to federal tax returns (more about what you need soon). Having everything together before you start makes it much easier to complete the FAFSA paperwork.
You can apply for FAFSA on October 1 of the year before the academic calendar would begin (you used to need to wait until January 1 of the academic year), and it’s best to apply as soon after the date as possible.
There are varying deadlines, depending upon the schools chosen, the state where you live, your program of choice, and more. You’ll want to have them all completed before the earliest of these deadlines arrive.
College deadlines are often the earliest, so look up the dates for each of your colleges of choice. Note that these deadlines are often priority deadlines; this means that, if you apply by this deadline, you’re eligible to receive the most money. If you aren’t clear about a particular college’s deadline, call its financial aid office.
Also note that, even if you aren’t yet clear about all of the schools to which you’ll be applying, you can always complete the FAFSA and then choose an option called “Make FAFSA Corrections” to add schools.
The government provides a list of FAFSA deadlines by state . Simply select your state from a scroll bar, along with the applicable school year to discover the deadline. If your state’s deadline is “As soon as possible after October 1, 2018,” apply as soon as you possibly can, especially since some states have more limited funds.
Federal deadlines are more generous, in that it’s June 30 of the end of a particular academic year. So, if a FAFSA application is available on October 1, 2018, the funds would be for the fall 2019/spring 2020 academic year—and those funds are available through June 30, 2020. Having said that, funds in some federal programs are limited. Plus, it’s crucial to meet earlier deadlines for schools and states.
2. Gather Together Your Information
The student who is applying needs to know his or her Social Security number or, if they’re not a United States citizen, their relevant Alien Registration Number.
You’ll also need your federal income tax returns, including your W-2 forms and any other relevant documents of money earned, including any untaxed income, if applicable. You may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your federal tax return information. Have your bank statements handy, as well.
And, if you’re a dependent student, your parents will need to fill out the FAFSA with you and have this information readily available for themselves, as well.
Important note: Your dependency status for FAFSA is not the same as for federal tax purposes, so determining that status is our next tip.
3. Determine Your Dependent/Independent Student Status
When you fill out the FAFSA, you will be asked a series of questions to make this determination. If you answer “yes” to one or more, then you are an independent student. All “no” answers make you a dependent student, even if you live separately from your parents and do not receive any financial support from them.
If, for example, you will be at least 24 years of age by December 31 of the school year in which you’re applying for student aid, you are considered an independent student. The same is true if you are married, in active military service, are a military veteran, or will be working on a master’s or doctorate program, among other possibilities. (If you are planning to go to grad school, here is more about paying for that next degree.)
Other ways in which you can be considered an independent student for FAFSA purposes include if, any time past the age of 13:
• both of your parents were deceased
• you were in foster care
• you were a dependent or ward of the court
Or, if a court in the state in which you live has emancipated you as a minor, you can be considered independent—as well as if you meet the standards for being homeless or at the risk of becoming homeless.
If you fit into one or more of these categories, or another of the ones listed in the FAFSA application, then you do not need to have parental information and participation when you apply. If you don’t fit any of the categories listed in the application, then you will likely need it.
You will need to establish a student FAFSA username and password. If you are a dependent student, you will also need parental ones. Keep them in a safe place and be sure not to mix your student FAFSA ID up with the one established by your parents.
4. Proofing Before Sending
Be sure to proofread your application before sending to help keep the process moving smoothly along. Also make sure that all required signatures are on the form. If you’re applying online, you’ll use personal identification numbers (PIN) as signatures. If you fill out the application but don’t sign it, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), but will not receive financial aid.
If you plan to mail in your FAFSA, don’t include anything else with the form. Any added documentation will be destroyed. Also, don’t write in the margins of the form. If you feel that it’s important to add unique financial information to your application, contact the financial aid department at the college you’d like to attend and ask for guidance.
Make sure you turn the form in before the earliest deadline, as described above, arrives.
5. Be Patient Yet Vigilant
A common question asked is, “How long does the FAFSA take to process?” And the answer is, it depends. You’ll receive your SAR the fastest if you apply online and provide FAFSA with your email address.
In that case, you can receive your SAR in as quickly as three days, although it may take a week or more. If you complete your FAFSA by paper and mail it in without an email address, it will likely take a couple weeks at least.
The schools you listed on your FAFSA will receive information about your financial aid eligibility, and each of them have their own processing schedules. Processing time, at this point, depends partly on how many applications that particular college is receiving.
Schools that you are accepted to may then create a financial aid package for you; note that listing a college on your application is not enough to guarantee that this school will you offer you financial aid.
Typically, colleges provide this information prior to May 1, as that is the official Candidates Reply Date Agreement (the date that students must accept the college admission offer of their choice).
So, on the one hand, you need to be patient for this process to be completed. Yet, be vigilant, calling the financial aid department of your preferred school if you have questions (after giving them a reasonable time frame to process applications and determine financial aid packages).
Other Ways to Finance Your Education
If you don’t qualify for enough financial aid to cover your education expenses you can look into other ways to pay for school. For example, grants and scholarships are another way to finance your education. Additionally, private student loans are an option if you don’t have enough financial aid.
SoFi helps students pay for college without the hassle with our private student loans. Our private student loans have no fees and we offer flexible repayment options to help you find the loan that fits your budget.
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