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College-bound high school seniors should file the FAFSA

Columbia University in New York City
Columbia University in New York City
© 2014 Frank Beck

High school seniors: after getting your college applications in on deadline, you probably feel you deserve at least a month’s vacation. In principle, I agree.

But in the real world, now is the time to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This is the basic form that must be completed by students (or their parents) who hope to receive need-based federal student aid, including Pell Grants, federal loans and work-study jobs. It’s also used by many colleges to help determine how much non-federal aid to give you.

Most colleges that offer aid require you to file the FAFSA. Some also ask for an additional form, such as the CSS Profile. And a few have their very own financial aid forms you will be required to fill out. The FAFSA, however, is the generally the first and most important. January is the time to start working on it.

Where your FAFSA information goes

The information you put on your FAFSA will be shared with the colleges you list. The financial aid office at each of these schools will use this information to figure out how much federal student aid you will get. Schools that have their own financial aid funds might also use the FAFSA information to help decide on the financial aid package they will offer you. Your information will also be sent to the higher education agency in your state and to the agencies of the states where the colleges on your list are located. That’s because many states give out financial aid.

Everyone should file a FAFSA

Whether or not you think you’ll be eligible for financial aid, you should still file a FAFSA. In fact, it’s not always easy to predict who will get aid and who won’t. So much depends on the policies of the individual schools. Some colleges even offer substantial aid to middle-class and upper-middle-class families. One thing’s for certain, you won’t get money if you don’t file the FAFSA. You won’t even be able to get federal student loans. So, don’t try to second-guess the FAFSA. Just answer their questions.

Why you shouldn’t wait

Although you may be tempted to wait, it’s best not to. That’s because many colleges give out financial aid on a first come, first served basis. It’s especially true of some of the smaller schools that don’t have large endowments. If you wait until the official deadline, the money may be gone. Or you may receive less aid than you would have, if you’d applied early.

Although the FAFSA will ask for your parents’ or guardian’s federal tax information for the previous year, it is not necessary for them to have filed their tax returns with the IRA before you file the FAFSA. You can use estimated income figures now, and submit the final numbers later.

Check the deadlines

Not every state or every college has the same FAFSA filing deadlines. Be sure to check the dates for each school on your list and complete the FAFSA before the earliest one. Also, remember that a deadline is simply the last acceptable date for filing. It’s to your advantage to complete this task at the earliest possible time—and well before your official deadline.

Check with the schools on your list

Besides the FAFSA, many colleges require financial aid applicants to fill out other aid forms, such as the CSS Profile. Be sure to check the requirements at each school on your list. Find out what financial aid forms they request and what those deadlines are. Add those deadlines to your calendar too.

Work with your parents

If there was ever a time you needed your parents’ help and blessings, financial aid applications are that time. The FAFSA will require detailed financial information from your parents, including their federal tax returns. Whether it’s you or one of them who ends up actually plugging those numbers into the FAFSA form, you’ll need their cooperation. There’s no way around it. So start the financial aid conversation with them now and enlist their support and assistance in rounding up the necessary financial documents.

File your FAFSA on the web

Years ago, the FAFSA application was all paperwork. Now, you can file on the web and most people choose that option. That’s because the electronic version of FAFSA is easier and faster. It even has software that is smart enough to catch some of your mistakes and urge you to correct them. Don’t worry, if you can’t complete the FAFSA in one sitting, you can save the work you’ve done and login another day to finish it.

For those who can’t or don’t want to file on the web, you can ask FAFSA to send you a paper application or even a PDF version.

Don’t fall for scams

There are some companies out there that would like to charge you for filling out the FAFSA. Don’t fall for it. FAFSA is a free application, administered by the U.S. government. Always check the URL before filling out any FAFSA forms. If the Web address doesn’t say “gov” you’re not on the real FAFSA site. Click here for the official website for FAFSA.

Be sure to check the status of your FAFSA

After submitting the FAFSA, you should check the status of your filing to make sure you have actually completed all the required steps. If you submitted this online, you can check the status immediately. If you submitted it on paper, check 7-10 days after you’ve mailed it.

What happens next?

After you have submitted the FAFSA, the Federal Student Aid office will process it and send you a Student Aid Report, which is a summary of the data you supplied. That should arrive somewhere between three days and three weeks after your FAFSA has been submitted. Be sure to check it to make sure there are no mistakes.

The Federal Student Aid office will use this data to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which they will share with the colleges on your list. Schools use this to calculate the amount of federal aid you are eligible to receive.

Keep in mind that there are many forms of aid that are not federal and that schools are free to offer you aid based on their own formulas. That’s why students from middle-class and even upper-middle-class families can sometimes receive generous financial aid offers. In the end, it all depends on the individual schools.

Follow up

After a reasonable time, follow up by making sure that every school on your list has received your FAFSA information and any other financial aid forms they require. Without these documents, hey won’t be able to make you a financial aid offer. It’s up to you to make sure they receive them in a timely way. For more information, visit the official website:

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Federal Student Aid Office, of the U.S. Department of Education

© 2014 Mona Molarsky, The College Strategist