10 First Steps for Early FAFSA Success

Whether you like it or not, completing the FAFSA is the first step on the road to receiving financial aid for college. And, whether you like it or not, it is time to complete the FAFSA. So here are ten straight-forward and helpful musts that will help you achieve early FAFSA success:

  1. You MUST file a FAFSA: If you expect federal financial aid of any sort, the only way to get it is by filing a FAFSA. It is also used by states and colleges for their financial aid, any federal student loans you need, and some scholarship committees, so there really is no way around it.
  1. You MUST file a FAFSA early: Although the starting date has been moved up to October 1, the best FAFSA strategy has always been to file early to make sure you receive all of the financial aid to which you are entitled. Once you have this out of the way, you should be able to get financial aid offers earlier, which will make comparing college costs easier.
  2. You MUST know your deadlines: There are several deadlines in the college application process and you need to be aware of them all. There is the college application itself - early action, early decision, or regular. There will be college, state and federal financial aid deadlines, and also scholarship deadlines. Get organized so you can get everything done on time.
  3. You MUST have an FSA ID: If you haven’t already applied for one, get it done now so you can move forward on your FAFSA.
  4. You MUST use the FAFSA website: Anything else but fafsa.gov is probably a scam.
  1. You MUST know your definitions: Don’t assume anything — read the explanations and take the necessary time to think through your answers. Don’t listen to rumor mills when answering these questions:
  • Legal guardian: Don’t answer that your parents are your legal guardians unless they have been so appointed by the state. Don’t answer this question unless an actual court has appointed someone as your legal guardian.
  • Parent: You cannot just say that you live with grandparents or a parent with lower income. There are very specific rules to follow to determine which parent, and possible stepparent, information you will use.
  • Household size: Read the rules to find out how to calculate household size, especially if you don’t live with your parents or if you live in a household with step-siblings.
  • Attending college: Include all members of your family who will attend college during the year under consideration, including yourself, but don’t include any parents in this figure.
  1. You MUST check your work: Haste makes waste, as the old saying goes, and this is especially true when it comes to completing the FAFSA. Mistakes lead to delays as the colleges try to get accurate information, which could lead to missed deadlines or loss of financial aid. Make sure you understand the differences between parent and student sections, use the names shown on Social Security cards, and re-check the Social Security numbers you provide. Simple typos can lead to major headaches.
  2. You MUST use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool: Well, technically, you don’t have to but why wouldn’t you? Instead of sitting there and typing in all of the information yourself, use the DRT to directly populate the financial areas of your FAFSA from the appropriate federal income tax return.
  1. You MUST include school codes: The major tool most colleges use to make financial aid decisions is the FAFSA. You will want to use the correct codes so your selected colleges receive your information. You can go back and add colleges later, but you want to make sure the preferred choices get your information as soon as possible.
  2. You MUST sign the FAFSA: The last step is to use the student and parent FSA ID to sign the FAFSA. If it is not signed it will not be submitted. If you cannot sign with an FSA ID for some reason, the student and parent do have the option to mail a signature page.