4 Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA is your ticket to federal student loans, plus many grants and scholarships. Fill it out each year with these tips by your side.

Father and son working at computer to complete FAFSA application for Federal Student Aid.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an application for financial aid that the federal government makes available to college students. This includes loans, grants and scholarships.

Completing the application is half the battle. It typically takes less than an hour, and it’s time well spent: The average amount awarded hovers around $3,900. Use these tips to make the process quick and relatively painless.

1. Get Your Documents Together

When you fill out the FAFSA, you’ll need to provide proof of your family’s financial situation. To save time, make sure you have all of the documents you’ll need at your fingertips:

  • Social security numbers for yourself and your parents
  • A Federal Student Aid Identification Number (FSA ID)
  • Your driver’s license or another form of government-issued ID
  • If you’re younger than 24, your and your parents' most recent tax returns
  • Bank account statements and any other asset records
  • Records of untaxed income such as child support, disability benefits and health savings accounts
  • The code for each school you’re considering

 2. Complete the Application

Now you’re ready to start filling out your FAFSA. The good news is that you only need to fill it out once per year. Then you can use your school codes to submit the application to the schools you want. As you work on your application, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Send your FAFSA to all the schools you’re considering. You can choose up to 10 schools through the FAFSA website. It’s free, and your future eligibility for financial aid is tied to your application. You can even send an application to a school that hasn’t made a decision about your application. If you’re not accepted, they’ll just disregard your application.
  • Fill it out even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid.Your eligibility doesn’t just boil down to how much money you make, but how much your parents make, how much you have in savings and how much your family is expected to contribute to your education. Even if your parents make six figures, you won’t be automatically disqualified from getting aid.
  • When filling it out, don’t leave spaces blank.Blank spaces can lead to processing delays. Fill out as much as you can, and then use zeroes or choose “not applicable” to fill in any remaining fields.

 3. Remember That You Have Nothing to Lose

Lots of grant money—free money—goes unclaimed every year, and some of it could be yours. You have nothing to lose by applying. If you don’t qualify for a grant or a grant won’t cover all of your expenses, your school can use your FAFSA to help you find low-interest federal loans to fund your education.

 4. Increase Your Eligibility

All colleges that receive your FAFSA use a formula to determine whether you’re eligible for financial aid and how much you’ll be awarded. Each school figures out how much tuition, books, room and board will cost. This is called cost of attendance (COA). The school then uses your FAFSA to compare that COA against how much your family could contribute to your COA, which is called the expected family contribution (EFC). A standard formula is applied to bridge the gap between EFC and COA, awarding you grants or scholarships to make college more affordable.

To make sure you’re getting the most aid possible, try one or more of these strategies:

  • Lower the amount of money in your savings account. You’ve been saving for college since first grade? Nice! Now ask your parents to help you transfer that money from your savings account to their 529 plan. The FAFSA calculation assumes that 20 percent of a student’s assets should be used toward school, but for parents, it’s only about 6 percent. By putting your college savings into a parent-controlled 529 plan, it will be assessed at the lower rate.
  • Use what you have now. If you have a chunk of savings for college, plan to use it up on tuition and books during your freshman year. Spending down your savings early is a smart way to use your college savings because it could mean a better chance at scholarships and grants after freshman year.
  • Move money. Did your parents recently sell a house or have an investment windfall? Those capital gains are treated like income on the FAFSA, so it may be better for your parents to put those gains into a 401(k) or IRA since those won’t count against you.
  • Add supplementary levels. Does your financial situation look better on paper than in real life? If you’ve recently experienced a job loss, if your parents have lost a large asset or if your circumstances have changed, attach a supplementary letter to your application. Colleges run the numbers, but many consider more than just the basic application.
  • Appeal. If you received a decision you don’t think is fair—for example, you’re awarded no money or not enough money—you can negotiate. Contact your school’s financial aid office and ask for the steps to appeal. Be polite, but definitely try to clarify your financial position to negotiate for a better scholarship or more grants.

The FAFSA makes college more affordable for millions of students every year. Every school has grants and scholarships available to students. By taking your time and filling out the FAFSA before you start school, you might be able to save more money and borrow less.

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