As of January 1, students can complete and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is required in most cases if you are hoping to receive federal, state or institutional financial aid for college. The form can be a bit intimidating, and each year some applicants make costly mistakes that result in lost financial aid benefits. To help you avoid these FAFSA filing pitfalls, we have compiled a list of things to avoid to ensure you receive the best possible financial aid package.
Not Submitting the FAFSA
Believe it or not, every year thousands of students fail to submit the FAFSA at all. Many students who do not complete the FAFSA feel their parents make too much money to qualify for any financial aid, but even those in low-income brackets are guilty of not applying too. Don’t make this mistake and let possible scholarships, grants and other forms of financial aid slip through your fingers. ALWAYS submit the FAFSA, starting with your senior year in high school, and file again each year you continue to be enrolled in college or grad school.
Filing Too Late
Although you may submit the FAFSA between January 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, don’t wait until the last moment to do so. Verify your state deadline for submitting the FAFSA (usually between January and June) to ensure you receive any state funding available, and also check with your college for their financial aid deadlines. Many colleges (and some states) award aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so applying early is essential. You don’t have to wait for your parents to complete and file their 2011 federal income taxes to complete the FAFSA form either. You can use 2010 taxes or final pay stubs to estimate the 2011 numbers for the FAFSA. Once you and your parents have submitted 2011 tax paperwork, simply go back to the FAFSA website to update your forms. You will be reminded in April to do so if you indicate that you “will file” instead of “have filed” on the FAFSA form.
One of the most common errors students make when filing the FAFSA is using the wrong parent’s income information. If the student’s parents are divorced, whomever the student lived with the longest over the past year will be the parent listed on the form. Income from a parent not living with the student will typically not be included. Also, be sure to enter the correct person’s information throughout the FAFSA form. Remember ‘You’ refers to the student on the FAFSA, not the parent, even though parents should be helping with the form whenever possible.
Many applicants make the mistake of including assets that should not be considered on the FAFSA when calculating financial aid. If your parents have a retirement fund, the balance of that account should not be included on the FAFSA. Only contributions made in the previous year should be reported. Another mistake is adding in the equity from the family home; do not include the family home. Only equity in a rental property or vacation home should be included for FAFSA calculations. Also, do not include furniture, vehicles or household possessions in the estimation of assets. By including these items, you may seriously reduce your eligibility for financial aid.
Complete the Correct Form
While this may seem like a no-brainer, every year some people fail to read the instructions and choose the wrong form. If you are seeking financial aid for enrollment this fall (August or September 2012), you would need to complete the 2012-2013 FAFSA, not the 2011-2012 FAFSA.
The FAFSA has several pages to complete, so always remember to save your work as you go, or you could be in for an unpleasant surprise should your computer freeze or the website lock-up. Another thing every student should do when completing the form is to mark ‘YES’ when it asks if you are interested in work-study and student loans. This does not mean you are obligated to select any of the loans offered or accept the work-study, but at least the options will be available to you should you qualify. If you are feeling overwhelmed or find you need some assistance, be sure to contact the FAFSA helpline at 800-433-3243 or open an online FAFSA chat session. Be sure to visit the FAFSA website for forms (online and paper) or more information. Good luck, and keep in mind the saying, “The early bird catches the worm,’ or in this case, the financial aid for college!
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