FAFSA Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

By Kayla McCormack · October 05, 2023 · 7 minute read

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FAFSA Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

Editor’s Note: The new, simplified FAFSA form for the 2024-2025 academic year is available, although applicants are reporting a number of glitches. Try not to worry, take your time, and aim to submit your application as soon as possible.

If you’re applying to college or graduate school, figuring out how to pay for your education is likely 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 jobs, 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.

You might be tempted to put off filling out the application or have no idea where to start, but submitting your application early could improve your chances of earning more aid. Continue reading for more FAFSA tips and tricks to help make sure everything goes smoothly.

Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA is required in order to apply for federal student loans, grants like the Pell Grant, and scholarships. Colleges and universities may also use the information provided on the FAFSA to determine college-specific awards. This is an important first step for students figuring out how they’ll pay for college.

Unfortunately, the FAFSA has become known for being a long, tedious, and complex form to fill out. Good news: The U.S. Department of Education is rolling out a new streamlined and simplified FAFSA for the 2024-25 school year in December, 2023 (a delay from the usual October 1).

Whether you’re filling out the standard 2023-24 FAFSA or the simplified 2024-25 FAFSA, here are some tips to keep in mind.

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Actually Fill The FAFSA 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. You also need to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for any type of federal student loan. Federal loans typically come with more robust benefits when compared to private student loans, including deferment during periods of economic hardship and income-driven repayment plans. You don’t want to lose out on potential financial help for lack of even trying.

If you don’t end up earning as much aid as you need, you can also search for scholarships from private organizations.

Submit As Early As Possible

Typically, the FAFSA becomes available on October 1 for the following academic year. The 2024-2025 academic year, however, is an exception. Due to upcoming changes to the FAFSA (and some adjustments to how student aid will be calculated), the form will be available in December 2023.

Generally, it’s a good idea to submit the FAFSA as soon after it’s released as possible, since some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Submitting the form early could help improve your chances of receiving financial help for college.

Most importantly, don’t miss the submission deadline. Technically, the FAFSA deadline is the end of June of the following year. But each state and educational institution has its own deadline for submitting the FAFSA.

You can check state deadlines on StudentAid.gov . For individual college due dates, you can go to the website for each college you’re interested in applying to, or reach out to their financial aid offices. Make sure you submit the FAFSA by the earliest deadline of the bunch.

Prepare Ahead of Time

To simplify the process of filling out the FAFSA, it’s helpful to gather everything you need in advance. Here are some of the things you may need for both yourself and your parents (if you’re a dependent):

•   Social Security Numbers, or Alien Registration Numbers for non-citizens If you don’t know these, you can request them from the Social Security Administration or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

•   Driver’s license numbers

•   Tax returns For the 2024–25 academic year, you’ll be asked for your 2022 tax information, which can typically be transferred directly from the IRS. 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 This can include 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 This might include 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.

Recommended: How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

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Apply Online

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 official Student Aid 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, you’ll need to 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 student, 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. According to the Department of Education, the 2024-2025 FAFSA will have an even easier and faster way to transfer your tax information directly from the IRS.

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 Fields Blank

Leaving fields blank can result in errors when filing your application. Instead, write “0” or “N/A” where relevant.

Filling Out the Application at the Same Time as Your Parents

The FAFSA will require financial information from both you and your parents. As mentioned, both you and your parents will have your own FSA ID information to log in and make changes to the FAFSA application. If you log in at the same time, you risk one or both of your changes not being saved properly.

Providing Incorrect Information

The FAFSA requires a lot of personal and financial information. Making careless errors or submitting incorrect information can cause issues with your application. For example, make sure you submit the correct 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.

Issues can also occur if you are 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.

Take your time and read the questions carefully. Breezing through the application in a rush can potentially lead to wrong answers or missed fields.

Recommended: What Are the FAFSA Requirements and Do You Meet Them?

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.

💡 Quick Tip: Would-be borrowers will want to understand the different types of student loans that are available: private student loans, federal Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, Direct PLUS loans, and more.

The Takeaway

Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to getting the financial aid many students need to make college or graduate school a reality. A few tips to help you toward FAFSA success include: reading the application closely, making sure you have the most up-to-date financial information at hand when you are ready to submit, and submitting the application as early as possible. And don’t forget, you’ll need to submit an application annually.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

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