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FAFSA Tips & Common Mistakes to Avoid

The best way to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is early, online, and without any mistakes (download and print our checklist of what you'll need to have on hand in order to file your FAFSA). If you aren't yet ready to file a FAFSA, the Department of Education's FAFSA4caster tool can help you estimate your eligibility for federal student aid by providing some basic information.

Apply Early

Many states and colleges use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for nonfederal student aid funds that may have early deadlines or limited funding. The sooner you complete the FAFSA the more aid you could be eligible for.

In past years, if you or your family had not yet filed your tax returns for the previous year when you submitted your financial aid application, you had to use estimates and go back later on to submit the actual figures. But that’s all changing starting with the 2017-18 FAFSA. Thanks to executive action taken by President Obama on September 13, 2015, instead of waiting until you and/or your parents have completed your tax returns for the previous year, you will now complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA, using information from two years prior. Watch our quick video to learn more about how you’ll benefit from this new move to using prior-prior year income data and read Federal Student Aid's College Students and Parents: What You Need to Know About the 2017–18 FAFSA two-pager for more information about the Early FAFSA

What you Need to Complete the FAFSA

View and print our helpful FAFSA Checklist to learn what you'll want to have on hand when you sit down to fill out your FAFSA.

Apply Online

Online applications are easier to complete because it uses skip-­‐logic to only ask relevant questions. In addition, online applications will be processed faster and will likely be more accurate because the FAFSA website is designed to catch common errors. The U.S. Department of Education provides a Pre-­Application Worksheet that will help you collect and proofread information for your application before you submit it. You can create a FSA ID that will allow easy access to your electronic FAFSA application. Additionally, this will enable save options, electronic signature and timely submission of your application. You can obtain your FSA ID and get more information on the FSA website.

IRS Data Retrieval

When you apply online, you will be given the option to retrieve your IRS Data to automatically populate the FAFSA. This option simplifies the application process, helps reduce errors and lowers your chances of being selected to verify the information on your FAFSA. Starting with the 2017-18 FAFSA, you will submit your tax information from two years prior, rather than your taxes for the most recent filing year. You should be able to retrieve this information to automatically populate the corresponding questions on the FAFSA.

Documents you need before you start the FAFSA

Note: If you're a dependent student, you'll need all these from your parents as well.

Your Social Security number
Your driver's license number, if you have one.
Your alien registration number, if you're not a U.S. citizen.
Records of investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate (not including the home you live in), and business and farm assets.
Bank statements, savings and checking account balances.
Records of untaxed income, including child support, interest income and veterans non-education benefits.
Federal tax, including W-2s.

Filling Out the FAFSA: Dependency Override

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Filling Out the FAFSA: Dependency OverrideLoans, Student Loans

The FAFSA can be difficult for students with non-traditional families. For students who find it impossible or unsuitable to put one parent’s financial information, such as in cases where a parent is abusive, neglectful, incarcerated or absent, universities can exercise their professional judgment and grant a dependency override to the student and disregard their parent’s information.

Filing for a dependency overrides consists of a lengthy process that varies across universities, and most schools require written evidence explaining the situation and why the student is unable to submit a parent’s financial information. Written evidence may include law enforcement documents, explanatory letters from counselors, social workers or clergy members or other relevant information that sheds light onto your special circumstances.

Steps for filling out the FAFSA for students requiring a dependency override

In Step 3 (Student), check “yes” for any applicable questions. If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, FAFSA considers you to be an independent student, and you can skip Step 4 (Parent). If you cannot answer “yes” to any of these questions, you may need to apply for a dependency override with your university.
FAFSA on the Web will ask whether you are able to provide information about your parents. Indicate that you have special circumstances that make you unable to provide this information.
Submit the FAFSA without the information of the parent whose whereabouts you do not know. Although your FAFSA will be submitted, if you have not answered “yes” to the questions that determine independent student status (explained in Step 1), your FAFSA will not be fully processed. You need to contact your school regarding further steps.
Contact your university’s financial aid office and explain your situation; see if they have university-specific advice or protocols. They will likely ask you to fill out additional forms or submit letters from counselors or other parties who know your situation well.

Advice from University Financial Aid Officers

When a student is seeking a dependency override, they should remember that documentation is the most important part of any override. The common overrides allowed by the FAFSA are, age, marriage, children, military service, homelessness, foster care, legal guardianship, and emancipated minor. Other overrides allowed by schools are, if the student’s parents are in another country or otherwise estranged, and if the student left home to escape an abusive relationship. With these overrides the student must select on the FAFSA that they cannot provide parent information. The FAFSA will process as incomplete and the student will then need to follow up with the financial aid office of the institution to which they are applying to resolve the dependency issue.

— Michael Rogovin, Education Advisor at the American Student Assistance Center

Students who are unable to provide parent information on the FAFSA due to abuse, neglect or incarceration should contact the Financial Aid Office at the school of their choice.

— Amy Cable, Director of Financial Aid at Mid-South Community College

FAFSA Tips For Students/Children of Divorced Parents

7 Legal Ways to Squeeze More College Aid From the FAFSA Sep 21, 2016, Jan 06, 2015

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the most important application for need-based college financial aid, may not seem anything like a fun Pokemon Go adventure. But hidden among its questions are treasures much more valuable than stardust. If you fill out the FAFSA correctly, you can dramatically increase your odds of winning scholarships, grants and low-cost forgivable student loans. Here is your seven-step cheat sheet to winning the FAFSA.

Don't blow it off: The FAFSA qualifies you and your parents for lots of goodies - regardless of how wealthy your family is. Students from families earning more than $200,000 a year often qualify for need-based aid from private colleges, for example. And students from families earning more than that need to file a FAFSA to qualify for low-cost, forgivable federal student loans and aid programs that require the FAFSA but award aid without regard to family income, such as the Tennessee Promise free community college offer.

Go online. You can print out a PDF and fill out the FAFSA on paper. But the online version uses skip logic, which makes it easier and faster. Also the online version will import your tax information, which speeds things up even more and reduces the number of questions you have to answer.
Time it right. If you're in college right now and haven't filled out this year's FAFSA, it's not too late. You can fill out the 2016-17 form as late as June 30, 2017 and possibly qualify for aid retroactively. But don't use that flexibility as an excuse to procrastinate. If you're planning to attend college in the fall of 2017, fill out the 2017-18 FAFSA as soon after it becomes available Oct. 1, 2016 as you can. That's especially important if you live in one of the 17 states with early deadlines or “first-come, first-served” financial aid programs. Early FAFSA filers receive, on average, twice the grant money as later filers, calculates financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz.

Clarify your relationships. Questions 16 and 59 ask about the students’ and parents’ marital status as of the day you file the form, to see if both parents’ income should be counted as financial resources for the student. Divorced or separated parents should report only one parent’s income - the parent with whom the student spends the most time - only if the other parent does not live in the same house. In other words, if you’re in the process of getting divorced or separated anyway, you'll probably get more aid if one spouse moves out before you finish the FAFSA.

Parents: Don’t brag. Some states and colleges offer extra aid to children of parents who haven’t earned college degrees. Questions 24 and 25 ask about the highest level of education your parents completed. So if one or both of your parents, attended community college, or even are just one credit away from a bachelor’s degree, make sure to fill in the dot only for “high school."

Pay your bills first. Questions 41 and 90 ask about how much cash students and parents have in savings and checking accounts at the moment you are filling out the FAFSA. But notice that there are no questions on the FAFSA about your debts or bills. So if you’ve got a sufficient emergency cash reserve, use any extra cash to pay down credit cards, car loans, or other bills before you finish filling out the form, and report the newly lower cash amount on the FAFSA. Here's more expert advice on how to legally manage your assets to increase your odds of aid.

Shield your investments. Questions 42, 43, 91 and 92 ask about the student’s and the parents’ investments. But many filers don’t realize that the value of any retirement accounts, as well as the home you live in, should not be included in these boxes. So if you’ve got a lot of money in non-retirement accounts, prepay your mortgage or plow some into Roth IRAs. One big advantage of Roth IRAs: You can take out your contributions (but not any earnings) tax-free to pay college bills