The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is how millions of students apply for federal, state, and most college-based financial aid. And because government grants compose 74% of this $185 billion pool, it’s understandable for families to feel anxious before filing the FAFSA. It doesn’t have to be that way. Susan McCrackin, Senior Director Financial Aid Methodology at the College Board, offers this seven-step map to help parents and students work through the FAFSA as efficiently and effectively as possible.
1. Gather your documents
It's much easier to fill out the FAFSA if you have all the needed forms in hand before you start. Here’s a list of documents you should have to get you going. You should also get a US Department of Education FSA ID, which you can create yourself. Check out the Federal Student Aid's page on Managing Your Account Information to learn how to do it. Once you have all this set up, you’ll be able to really dive in to completing your FAFSA forms.
2. Think about taxes
Parents’ taxes are an important part of the FAFSA process. Getting taxes done by February 1 may be unrealistic, so last year’s taxes and this year’s paystubs can help create estimates. After February 3, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool becomes available, allowing students and parents to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS website. If you owe the government money, take note: You can complete your taxes without actually filing and cutting a check to Uncle Sam.
3. Find quiet time
The FAFSA has a lot of sections. Breaking them into smaller pieces makes the application easier to navigate. Consider these do’s and don’ts:
- Don’t sprint. Take questions one at a time and give yourself time to properly answer each question.
- Do read each question carefully and out loud. It will help you understand the question better.
- Don’t multitask. Put your cell phone away and turn off the television.
- Do find a quiet place where you can give the FAFSA your full attention. Mistakes can cost you—literally.
4. Stay student focused
Parents often forget that the student always provides information. Parents are required to provide their information if the student is dependent. So remember that when a question that refers to “I,” that “I” is the student. “You” is also the student. When questions address parents, they will see questions that refer to “your parents.” This is where parental information goes.
5. Avoid parent traps
As families evolve, so do questions about who needs to provide information for the FAFSA. When you see “parents,” FAFSA is referring to the student’s biological or adoptive parents. When the parents are married, then the student and both parents complete the FAFSA. If the parents are not together, things can get confusing.
Who fills out the FAFSA?
A student always provides information for the FAFSA, but when do family members also provide information? Here are some questions and answers to help you understand who needs to help you with your form:
- Are your parents married? Both will provide information.
- Are your parents divorced or separated? The parent with whom you live with the most is your custodial parent, and they’ll fill out the FAFSA. If this parent has remarried, your stepparent will also fill out the FAFSA. If you live with your parents equally, the parent providing more financial support will fill out the FAFSA. If your parents' support is equal, the parent with the higher income will fill it out.
- Is one of your parents deceased? Your surviving parent will fill out the FAFSA. If they’ve remarried, your stepparent will also fill out the FAFSA.
Who doesn’t provide information for the FAFSA?
Nowhere on the FAFSA should a foster parent, legal guardian, grandparent, noncustodial parent, or other relative you live with supply information. If any of these circumstances apply to you, you should file the FAFSA independently.
6. Keep track of deadlines
Every college has a different set of deadlines based on priority, merit, early decisions, etc. BigFuture by the College Board helps families sort through these deadlines with detailed college profiles and a free, customized action plan. Should you have specific questions about specific colleges or universities, don’t be afraid to call the college’s financial aid office and ask questions.
7. Look into the CSS Profile
Filing the FAFSA opens the doors to federal aid, but there’s also almost $50 billion in non-federal aid available—from colleges, states, and private institutions. Some colleges and programs use the College Board’s CSS Profile to award these monies. The Profile is an online application that collects information used by almost 400 colleges and scholarship programs to award financial aid outside sources from the federal government. Families must complete the application and the College Board sends it to the colleges and scholarship programs they have chosen. Here’s a list of colleges that use the CSS Profile and where to complete the Profile. Sending your CSS Profile report to one college or scholarship program costs $25. Additional reports are $16 each. But there are fee waivers available for low-income families.
It’s time. Go after your piece of the more than $185 billion in financial aid to help make college possible. Chances are it will lead to an investment that provides returns for the rest of your life.