Intro to FAFSA: Who, what, when, where, and how

Parent and student talking about FAFSA

We’ve put together a list of questions that will likely come up as you fill out the FAFSA.

It’s time again to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. So how do you help your students and their families who may be filling out the form for the first time? We’ve put together a list of questions that will likely come up:

Q: Who should fill out a FAFSA form?

Answer: All families who have a student planning to attend college in the upcoming academic year.

There’s a misconception that if a family’s income is above average they shouldn’t bother turning in a FAFSA, but that isn’t true. Sure, those students might not be given need-based grants, but they’ll still want to try for scholarships, merit-based aid, federal loans, or work-study. To do those things, they’ll need to have first completed a FAFSA.

Q: What are some common FAFSA mistakes?

Answer: The name.

Making sure the name and basic information are entered correctly, in full, and matching what’s on the student’s social security card can avoid the most common mistake that will slow down an application.

Remember, accidentally transposing a couple of numbers or letters could cause a FAFSA application to be rejected, right out of the gate. Financial aid offices can fix these mistakes, but that could slow down the process. And that could cause the student to miss out on funds. So encourage students to give their forms a thorough “typo review” before submitting.

Q: When should the FAFSA get turned in?

Answer: As soon as possible after January 1.

Students applying for the 2016-2017 school year should start the FAFSA as early as January 1, 2016. This can get a little sticky, since many families will not have filed their taxes at that time, but they can use estimates and link the application with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool later.

Some states, grants, and programs have early decision deadlines, which means some money is distributed quickly. Students who turn their FAFSA in sooner can apply for those funds earlier, which could lead to more access to aid.

Q: Where do students and their families find the documents they’ll need?

Answer: Students and families can find what documents they’ll need by visiting:

The FAFSA requires a good amount of information to complete successfully, but by gathering the documents in advance, they’ll be prepared for all questions asked. Students and parents can make a checklist or folder ahead of time, so they won’t have to scramble while filing. Follow the link for a list of papers and expense information that’s good to have on-hand.

Q: How can students and parents find extra help?

Answer: Here are several resources.

The first time filling out any financial paperwork can bring up questions, but there are resources available to help anyone going through the process. From in-person education programs like College Goal Sundays, sponsored by the YMCA, to more in-depth Q&A through the FAFSA website and hotline, applicants can get the help they need to complete the application.

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