Top Mistakes When Filling Out the FAFSA (and How to Avoid Them)
- Not filing the FAFSA at all. "About 2 million students would have qualified for federal grants, but did not apply by filing the FAFSA," says David Levy, co-author of the book Filing the FAFSA. "Every student should apply for financial aid regardless of family income." Even if you didn't get any need-based financial aid in the past, students should still complete the FAFSA each year they're in school. "Even small changes can have an impact on the amount and types of financial aid students will receive," Levy says.
For instance, let's say you didn't qualify for need-based aid last year. But this year, a younger sibling will be joining you as a fellow college student. Your expected family contribution (EFC) is typically divided by the number of students your family has in college at one time, which may increase the amount of financial aid you are eligible for. Therefore, you could qualify for more financial aid — including need-based aid — this time around.
- Being unaware of deadlines. While the federal deadline to file the FAFSA for the 2018-19 school year isn't until June 2019, there are also separate state and school deadlines, points out Carissa Uhlman, vice president of student success at Inceptia, a non-profit organization that helps students borrow for college wisely. The school and state deadlines are often much earlier than the federal deadline.
"For instance, your school's deadline may be in December, your state's deadline may be in early spring, and the federal deadline is not until June," says Uhlman. "Only paying attention to the federal deadline means you may have missed out on state- or school-based aid."
- Not filing early enough. In almost all cases, it's best to submit your FAFSA as soon as you can after the start of the filing period because some funding is awarded on a first-come, first-served, basis.
"Students who file the FAFSA during the first three months of the FAFSA submission period get more than twice as much grant funding, on average, as students who file the form later," Levy says.
- Not having the required documents ready beforehand. To make sure you're entering the correct info, have everything you need before you begin filing. That way you aren't scrambling to find the proper documents and information, which could lead to errors. You'll need your Social Security number (SSN), FSA ID — your federal student aid ID, asset records and tax returns from two years prior.
Be sure to keep copies of these records, FSA ID and log in credentials in a safe place so you can refer to them later. Your FSA ID will be needed each year you complete a FAFSA.
- Using the incorrect website. There are websites that offer assistance filling out a FAFSA — for a fee. Be sure to use the official, US Department of Education-endorsed site when filing the FAFSA, which never charges a fee: fafsa.ed.gov.
For help getting ready to complete the FAFSA application, you can use the free College Covered FASFA assistant.
- Getting basic information incorrect. Ensuring your name, date of birth and SSN are correct seems like a no brainer, but mistakes with this type of information can cause your FAFSA to be rejected.
The FAFSA verifies the information that's in the Social Security database to check your citizenship status. Therefore, you'll need to input your legal name, date of birth and SSN exactly as it appears on your card.
To make sure you get your SSN correct, have a hard copy of your Social Security card on hand when you're filing the FASFA so you can cross-check it. And if your parent is the one filling it out on your behalf, they'll want to be sure not to accidentally swap your number for theirs.
If you don't have your SSN on hand, or if there's an error on your Social Security records, such as the incorrect name or birth date, be sure to get this corrected well before October 1. You can contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to make any revisions.
- Getting confused about your dependency status. Understanding your dependency status can also get confusing when it comes to the FAFSA. That's partly because the guidelines on the FAFSA as to whether you should file as a dependent or independent are different than the IRS's guidelines for dependency status on tax returns.
"Many students mistakenly believe that they are independent just because they live on their own or don't have contact with their parents," says Uhlman.
While there are exceptions, including being married or serving in the military, most undergraduate students are usually considered a dependent up until the age of 24, even if you don't live with your parents. If that's the case, you'll need to provide parent information on your FAFSA. This is such a common mistake that the FAFSA verifies when you turn 24 more than once during the application process. That's so the FAFSA can "edit check" and prevent this error. If the answers to your age don't match, the system could catch this. Despite this built-in review function, make sure to double-check that your age is correct.
- Using symbols in numeric fields. The system only reads digits, so be careful not to include decimal points, commas, dashes or hyphens in numeric fields. You'll also want to avoid adding extra zeros or transposing digits. For instance, when reporting your income, instead of 5,800, use 5800 — without the comma or dollar sign — and not 58000 or 8500 by mistake.
- Putting down the wrong amount of your income tax. This is a tricky one, as you're asked to enter your assessed income tax liability, which is the total amount of tax on your income. This isn't the amount of income tax withheld, nor is it your adjusted gross income (AGI). You can use this handy table to figure out which tax line number you should look at. If you find yourself scratching your head, reach out to a tax professional for help.
Other tax-related mistakes include reporting retirement contributions as non-retirement assets, such as part of investments. This can inflate your family's EFC, which can reduce the amount of aid you're eligible to receive, explains Mike Velasco, president of Red Oak College Planning, a firm based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, that helps families plan for college costs.
- Not reporting all sources of income. You'll need to include income or benefits such as investments and savings as well as earnings from any jobs for both. Untaxed sources of income such as Social Security, disability, and worker's compensation, should also be reported on your FAFSA application.
- Reporting the wrong parent when your parents are divorced. There are pretty rigid guidelines as to which parent or parents need to be reported and how to do so on the FAFSA. For instance, if your parents are divorced or separated, you would report the parent you lived with longest during the past 12 months. If you lived with both parents equally, you should list the parent who provided you the most financial assistance. You will also need to report a step parent's financial information if they provided you with at least 50 percent of financial assistance. This is regardless of the prenuptial agreements. Velasco reminds students not to put a non-custodial parent's income and assets into the FAFSA.
- Reporting the wrong number of family members in college. This is the number of people in your, or your parents', household (including yourself) who will be attending college at the same time as you do. You'll need to include a step parent's child if they are attending college at least half-time, even if they don't live with you. This could help boost your chances of getting more financial aid.
- Not listing all the schools. You'll also need the list of schools to which you'll be applying. You can list up to 10 schools on the online FAFSA and, even if you're undecided, you can list the schools you're considering. While the order you list the schools in doesn't matter for federal aid, it could make a difference on a state level. Some states require that you list an eligible state college in a certain position to receive aid from the state.
- Not signing the FAFSA. "Believe it or not, many students get to the end of the online process only to skip the final step of signing by way of an FSA ID," Uhlman says.
To avoid this mistake, sign up for an FSA ID before you begin filling out the FAFSA. This allows you to sign your form electronically, which not only speeds up completing the FAFSA, but also reduces the risk you will forget to mail in a signature page later. And if you're filing as a dependent, have your parents also sign up for an FSA ID before you begin, as they'll need to sign the online form as well.
The FAFSA is the necessary first step to paying for college. It is a comprehensive form that can seem daunting, but in reality it takes an average of about 30 minutes to complete online. Preparing for the FAFSA by gathering what you need (and your parents if you're a dependent student) and setting aside enough time will help make the process easier. When you're completing it, remember to hit the Save key as frequently as possible. Even though the FAFSA should autosave periodically, it can't hurt.
By knowing what the most commonly made mistakes are when filling out the FAFSA and how to avoid them, there's a greater chance for speedy processing of your application. In turn, you'll increase your odds of getting the most financial aid possible. Want additional help in preparing for the FAFSA application? Check out the free College Covered FAFSA assistant.
FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.