FAFSA is an acronym which strikes fear in the hearts of students and parents throughout the U.S.
School counselors aren’t always FAFSA fans either, as it takes a lot of their time helping families understand and complete it.
But really, filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is not rocket science, as you are about to find out.
In case you don’t already know, the FAFSA is a form developed by the federal government to determine a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid…both loans and grants. Every year the U.S. Congress tweaks the formula used to determine financial aid eligibility. That formula is called the congressional methodology (in the off chance you are interested). The information a student provides on the FAFSA helps the government come up with a number referred to as the EFC…estimated family contribution…the amount of money a student ‘s family could be reasonably expected to contribute to his or her education.
Not hard to understand so far, right?
While students and their families prepare to complete the FAFSA, college and university financial aid staffs work diligently to come up with what most call a “budget number”…the total amount of money a student will need, including books and living expenses, for the upcoming academic year. Once the government determines the estimated family contribution and the financial aid staff finalizes the budget number, a student’s financial need…the amount of aid for which he or she may qualify…can be easily determined by subtracting one from the other.
In other words, if a student attends a college where total costs for an academic year (the budget number) are $25,000 and that student has an estimated family contribution of $15,000, he or she is eligible to receive the difference between the two, which is $10,000 in this example.
Filling out a FAFSA application is about as time consuming and generally unpleasant as filling out an income tax return form. There are about 100 different, specific, questions to answer.
Some people can get through a FAFSA in an hour, but others will need substantially more time…perhaps an hour or two more.
So, now that you know what you’re in for, we hope that any anxiety you might have had about the FAFSA is gone. If not, it should be. Filling out the FAFSA is far from fun, but it’s no big deal. That’s a promise.
Here are a few tips.
Start by getting all of your financial records together. If you have good records, the rest of the process will be pretty smooth.
When in doubt, get help. College financial aid officers will answer your questions, as will high school counselors (even if you have been out of high school for many years). Don’t guess.
Treat the FAFSA the way you’d treat the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GMAT, etc. Read everything carefully, then check and double-check all of your numbers and answers. Nothing will delay an application and expose you to an often aggravating process like incomplete or incorrect answers, so be sure to fill everything out and make sure all of your answers are correct. If you get tired or horribly bored, walk away and return the next day.
The best way to fill out a FAFSA is online. The primary reason is that it makes it easier for you to correct errors found both before and after submission, but the fact that online applications are received sooner than are paper applications can also be helpful.
Before you do anything else, check the dates on the form to ensure that it is current. You might be surprised to know how many people submit outdated forms. That’s not a group you want to join.
There can be several benefits to submitting the FAFSA as early as possible (January), so try to beat the crowd.
Here’s one final suggestion. Check that, let’s call it a rule. Carefully organize and file all financial records, including copies of your FAFSA’s.