An Overview of the CSS Profile Form for Financial Aid

Should you use this to apply for non-federal financial aid?

Mother and daughter filling out CSS form
•••   Ariel Skelley / Getty Images 

When it comes to applying for financial aid, the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form is often confused with the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. While there are many differences between the CSS PROFILE and the FAFSA, the main difference is that they are used to apply for different types of financial aid. If you want to receive federal financial aid or federal student loans, you have to complete the FAFSA.

The CSS (College Scholarship Service) PROFILE, on the other hand, is used to apply online for nonfederal financial aid from almost 400 colleges, universities, professional schools, and scholarship programs. It goes into depth on your financial background somewhat more than the FAFSA does.

Some colleges may also have their own separate financial aid applications. Check the list of requirements for each school your child is applying to, and also be sure to pay close attention to their admission deadlines. It could get a little complicated, so it is best to leave yourself as much time as possible for everything. It is usually recommended that you try to submit the PROFILE at least two weeks prior to your school’s financial aid deadline, just to leave yourself additional time for any errors, omissions, or revisions.

The CSS PROFILE is a service of the College Board. It comes online on October 1 for the following academic year. It uses prior-prior-year (PPY) income tax information. For the 2018–19 application, this means that you will be able to utilize information from your 2016 federal income tax returns. It should aid in the timely completion and submission of the form, but there may also be some income estimates required for 2017 and 2018 to provide a complete picture of your financial situation.

Unlike the FAFSA, which is free to complete, the CSS PROFILE form costs $25 to create and submit to one school. Additional schools cost $16 per submission. A limited amount of fee waivers are available to low-income families. Since the CSS PROFILE form only covers a certain group of schools, you should be absolutely sure it is required before you spend the time and money to apply. Have the information submitted only to those schools that you want to attend.


Whereas federal financial aid is calculated based on a strict formula across all students nationwide, the CSS PROFILE form allows colleges to calculate aid eligibility for their own programs based on the individual criteria each one sets. Hence, the questions on one school’s CSS PROFILE may vary dramatically from those of another school.

Because the CSS PROFILE form is for non-federal or private scholarships, grants, and financial aid programs, the schools are permitted to consider other factors not considered on the FAFSA form. These include items such as the value of a parent’s home, non-custodial parent income, insurance contract values, and annual retirement plan contributions. Take advantage of the pre-application worksheet, which can help in determining what information will be requested and what documentation to gather.

Completing the Form

To complete the CSS PROFILE, take the following steps:

  1. Gather information: Pull together financial information including tax returns, information on temporary assistance or Supplemental Security Income, W2 forms, bank statements, mortgage information, and records of untaxed information. It is a lot to do, but it will also make things easier for completing the FAFSA.
  2. Register: Visit the College Board website and register for the CSS PROFILE. Your application is tailored to your family situation and the colleges or programs you select. You can securely save your application and return to complete it at any time.
  1. Complete the application: Follow the customized Pre-Application Worksheet provided as it will help you complete the PROFILE. As you answer questions, the system will automatically provide online help and edits to minimize any mistakes.
  2. Submit the application: You will be able to pay online and will receive an online acknowledgment of your application. Read the acknowledgment carefully to see if there are any additional steps you must take.

Some schools who accept the CSS Profile will use the College Board's verification service, IDOC (Institutional Documentation Service). The student will receive an email from the College Board about this next step.