The end of winter break brings the beginning of the federal student aid application season. But, don’t sweat it! Whether this is your first time dealing with financial aid or you’re planning your FAFSA renewal, there are several basic tips that can help you better understand the FAFSA process. You can earn a competitive edge in securing the federal student aid you need to help pay your tuition and other important school-related expenses.
- Time is money—submit your application early. Although the 2012/2013 federal deadline for submitting FAFSA applications is midnight CDT on June 30, it is never too soon to start the process. According to college financial aid advisor Jim Boyle in the Smart Money article, “Decoding the FAFSA: 6 Tips to Boost Financial Aid,” “most colleges set their priority deadlines between early February and mid-March in the preceding academic year. […]So students should file their FAFSA as early as possible to be in the running for the maximum amount of aid. High school seniors who apply to multiple colleges will need to meet each college’s deadlines.” Boyle, goes on to state that, “More than ever, there will be limited financial aid dollars with a lot of pressure on school budgets.” Applying early is key to getting your foot in the door.
- Keep your financial records up to date and file tax returns as early as possible. Because you will want to get your application submitted as soon as possible, it is ideal to get your/your parents’ tax returns filed as soon as possible after the first of the year. However, if necessary, you and your parents can use estimated tax return information when completing the financial data on the FAFSA application. For this reason, be sure to keep accurate records of any of your personal earnings, such as paystubs, W2s and other payroll documentation from employers. This information will help you make educated estimates.
- Have the correct parent complete the FAFSA. For many students, living with a divorced, single or remarried parent can cause questions regarding which parent is responsible for reporting financial data required on the FAFSA application. According to the FAFSA checklist provided by getreadyforcollege.org, you only need to provide financial information for the parent with whom you lived for the majority of the previous year. If you live with both parents for an equal amount of time, the site recommends providing information for the parent who provided the majority of your financial support.
- Apply online. According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), FAFSA applications that are completed online are processed more quickly and more accurately, as the FAFSA website is set up to catch the most common application errors. An additional bonus to completing the application online is that if your tax return was filed electronically before the time of your application, you can automatically download your tax information into the FAFSA website. This is a time-saving measure that also helps prevent errors associated with manually typing the information.
- Complete the form even if you think you don’t qualify. Although you may not have qualified for financial aid in the past, or if you are uncertain that you will qualify for the upcoming year, you should still complete the FAFSA application before the relevant deadlines. The application is a prerequisite for programs such as the Pell Grant, Perkins Loan, Stafford Loan and work-study. Having the information complete and on file will be a lifesaver, should financial or other life circumstances change and you need to apply for any federal, state or school-based aid programs.
- Review your information to ensure it is accurate. Once your FAFSA application is processed, you will receive a follow-up document called the Student Aid Report (SAR). The document is critical to review as it contains a summary of the information you submitted on your application, along with your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — a number that is used to determine your eligibility for financial aid. The SAR is the basic tool schools use when evaluating financial aid awards, so you want the information to be as accurate as possible. If the document contains any errors, you can make corrections online at www.fafsa.gov.
- Stay connected. Finally, keep your school’s financial aid office up to date on any changes in personal or family circumstances that may have occurred since you completed the FAFSA application. Status changes such as a job loss, a sibling starting college, a divorce or remarriage can occur at any time and may increase your opportunity for financial assistance.