Financial Aid: Now’s the Time to File the FAFSA

Student fills out the FAFSAHave you filed your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) yet? If not, you’d be smart to do so soon. It’s the single most important filing for students seeking financial aid for college. Now’s the time to file the FAFSA. Here’s why:

This year the Department of Education has made the FAFSA available to students and their parents on October first, a full three months earlier than in previous years. They’ve announced that FAFSA filing will begin in October in coming years too.

For those hoping to get financial aid for college, that’s a big plus. It means students who file early may receive word of their financial aid packages in the late fall or early winter. That gives students plenty of time to consider their options before choosing which college they’ll attend.

I say “may” because the actual financial aid packages are put together by the individual colleges, not the Department of Education. Each college works according to its own deadlines. Some will move their timing up to complement the FAFSA’s early filing option. Others will not.

For those new to the financial aid game, here’s what you need to know. The FAFSA is the basic form that all students hoping to receive need-based federal student aid must complete (usually with help from their parents). It determines your eligibility to receive federal loans, grants and work-study jobs. In addition, many schools use the FAFSA to help them decide how much non-federal aid to give a student.

Most colleges that offer aid require students to file the FAFSA. Some private colleges also ask for another form, such as the CSS Profile. This more extensive financial questionnaire gives schools a more nuanced picture of family finances. If a college asks you to fill out the CSS Profile or another such form, be sure to do so. There’s a good chance it will be to your benefit.

The FAFSA, however, is the first and most important financial aid form. You should file it before filing any other financial aid documents. Beginning this year, October or early November is the best time to do it. Here are some tips to make it easy:

1. Visit the FAFSA website

Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov. Make sure you are on the official FAFSA website and that the URL ends with .gov. (There are scam websites that charge you money, but the official FASFA government website is free.)

If this is your first time filing out the FAFSA, you’ll need to register and get an FSA ID number. (Save the ID number because you will need to use it every year that you apply for financial aid.)

2. Gather your information

Before filling out the FAFSA, make sure you have all the information about you and your parents (or guardians) that you will need. That includes: Social Security numbers, 2015 tax returns, W-2 forms, records of untaxed income, bank statements and records of investments. If you are not a citizen, you will also need your alien registration number.

3. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

To speed up the process and avoid mistakes, you can transfer your 2015 federal tax information straight into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Just click the link to the IRS to prefill the form when you get to the financial information section of the FAFSA.

4. List your colleges

List the colleges you are going to apply to. There’s space for up to 10. You can add others later, if necessary. Check the official FAFSA website for information about the order in which you should list the schools.

5. Sign and submit your FAFSA

Don’t forget to sign and submit your FAFSA. You’ll need to sign with your FSA ID (your username and password). When you see your confirmation page, you’ll know that your FAFSA form has been submitted. Be sure to print or save this confirmation page before you exit the site.

6. Next up: the CSS Profile

After filing the FAFSA, take a deep breath. Then check with the schools on your list to find out whether they require the CSS Profile from financial aid applicants. If they do, be sure to file it. Because the CSS Profile requires time and patience, you may be tempted to skip it. Don’t. Some of the best financial aid available to middle class students comes as a result of the CSS Profile.

According to recent reports, about two-thirds of full-time college students receive some form of financial aid. If you complete the necessary forms in a timely way, there is a good chance that you will too.

For more information contact The College Strategist

 

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About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.