If you’re applying to college or graduate school, figuring out how to pay for your education should be top of mind. The first step for many prospective students is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA®.
This form is your gateway not only for federal loans, but also for federal grants, work-study funds, and even scholarships and grants available through your state or school. Filling out the FAFSA is key, since it’s how your eligibility for student aid is determined.
The federal government is the country’s largest provider of student financial aid, issuing more than $120
billion in assistance to over 13 million borrowers each year.
But besides college applications, filling out the FAFSA may be one of the first “adult” tasks you ever have to do, and it can be daunting. The title alone is a mouthful! Not to mention having to gather a bunch of records and answer financial questions that are probably foreign to you.
In the face of that, you might be tempted to put off filling out the application or have no idea where to start. And once you do, it can be easy to make mistakes. But fear not! To help avoid that, here are some FAFSA tips and tricks to help make sure everything goes smoothly.
Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA
Actually Fill it Out
Some people may not complete a FAFSA under the assumption that their income, or that of their family, is too high for them to qualify for any student aid. In reality, the government has no official income threshold to qualify for federal student aid, and there are many forms of aid on the table.
So you can’t really predict whether you might benefit. Federal student loans, for example, may come with more robust benefits when compared to private student loans, including deferment during periods of economic hardship and income-driven repayment plans. Don’t lose out on potential aid for lack of even trying.
The FAFSA form becomes available on October 1 annually, for the following academic year. Completing it as early as possible is a good idea, since some states and colleges give out aid on a first-come, first-served basis and may run out of funds.
Most importantly, don’t miss the submission deadline. Technically, the deadline is the end of June of the following year (with corrections or updates due mid-September). But each state and educational institution has its own deadline for submitting the FAFSA.
You can check state deadlines on the Department of Education website, and you may want to contact each college you’re thinking of applying to and ask about their due dates. Make sure you submit the FAFSA by the earliest deadline of the bunch.
Prepare Ahead of Time
It can take up to an hour or more to fill out the FAFSA application, so gathering everything you need in advance can be helpful.
Otherwise, you can waste time digging around for needed paperwork or delay getting the application in because you realize you need to request records you don’t have. Here are some of the things you’ll need to have on hand:
• Social Security Numbers, or Alien Registration Numbers for non-citizens, for you and your parents, if you’re a dependent. If you don’t know these, you can request them from the Social Security Administration or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
• Your driver’s license number, if you have one
• Tax returns for you and your parents (if you’re a dependent), when applicable. Make sure you have tax returns for the right year. If you or your parents have had a change of income since that tax return, you may need to let the financial aid departments of the schools you’re applying to know directly.
• Records of assets you or your parents own, including bank statements showing savings and checking account balances or records of investments such as stocks, bonds, or real estate, excluding the family home.
• Records of income that isn’t taxed, such as child support or interest.
• Federal school codes for the institutions you’re applying to. You can find these on the Department of Education website . Include every school you’re even remotely considering, even if you haven’t yet submitted your application or been accepted. There are no repercussions if you end up listing schools you don’t apply to or get into. However, if you add a school later, there may be less financial aid available.
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You can request a paper form, but if possible, submitting your FAFSA online is the quickest and easiest way to submit your application. Make sure you are on the right website , which should end in “.gov.” If you’re asked to provide credit card information, you’re in the wrong place (after all, “free” is in the form’s name).
Before you get started, create an FSA ID on the Department of Education website. This is the username and password you’ll use to electronically sign your FAFSA, as well as to prefill information in future years, since you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA each year you want to apply for student aid.
If you are a dependent, your parents will need to create an independent FSA ID. Because this ID serves as an official signature, you should create your own and not share it with anyone.
Take Advantage of Time Savers
Besides using an FSA ID, another way to speed up the application process is to use the IRS Data Retrieval
Tool . This allows you to automatically populate answers to some questions on the FAFSA with information from you or your parents’ federal income tax returns. This not only saves time, but is also a good way to make sure you submit accurate numbers.
Get Help if You Need it
If you’re confused about something, don’t worry—and don’t ignore it. First, check the frequently asked questions on the FAFSA website. If that doesn’t help, you can contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center by chat, email, or phone.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Every year, certain errors crop up again and again in FAFSA applications. To help prevent delays in your financial aid, it’s worth ensuring you aren’t making these common mistakes:
• Leaving some fields blank. Instead, write “0” or “N/A” where relevant.
• Making errors in your Social Security number. If you don’t use this number often, you may not know it by heart. But being one digit off here can throw things off.
• Logging into the FAFSA at the same time as your parents. This might result in changes you make not being saved.
• Providing the wrong figures for investments. Carefully follow the instructions to report student and parent investments in the right place and understand what to include or exclude.
• Not reading questions carefully. Breezing through responses can lead to wrong answers or missed fields.
• Mailing in records. You don’t need to send tax returns, bank statements, social security cards, or anything else to the government.
• Failing to reapply. The FAFSA isn’t a one-time deal. Most schools require you to re-apply every year, so make sure you stay on top of deadlines.
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Why You Might Consider a Private Student Loan
Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to getting the loans many students need to make college or graduate school a reality. However, it’s possible that the federal student aid offered won’t adequately cover the cost of college tuition. This is when a private student loan with SoFi might be something to consider.
SoFi offers private student loans for undergraduates, graduates, and parents, that offer competitive rates, no hidden fees, and an easy online application. Explore multiple flexible payment options to find the loan that works best for your own personal financial situation.
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SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.