If you need to get financial aid of any sort for your college student, the best way to do it is through filling out the FAFSA – the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is used mainly to determine whether or not you qualify for federal loans and grants, but it’s also used by individual schools and even states to pass out need based grants and scholarships. You really don’t stand a chance of getting the money your student needs for school unless you take time to fill out this application. Here are five tips for doing it.
1. Start early! The federal government, your state government, and your school only have a limited amount of money to pass out to students. They offer it on a first-come, first-served basis, which means that the earlier you fill out this application, the better off you’ll be.
You need the last year’s tax information to fill out the FAFSA in the spring. It’s a good idea to file your taxes as soon as all the paperwork comes in around February. As soon as you’ve filled out your tax forms, as long as there are no problems or mistakes, you can fill out the FAFSA. You can even do it while your tax forms are still in the mail! Just make sure you keep copies of all the information, since filling in the FAFSA requires detailed information from these forms.
2. Follow the step by step instructions. It’s possible to fill out a paper form of the FAFSA, but it’s much, much easier to just do it online. You can go to www.fafsa.gov to fill the worksheet out online. It will tell you what goes in each box of the worksheet and where you can find certain information on your tax return forms.
Keep in mind that if you college student worked and filed taxes, the information from their return forms is important, too. Again, though, the online version of the worksheet will walk you through the process step by step. It couldn’t be easier as long as you take your time and pay attention to the directions.
3. Apply for a PIN. In order to save your FAFSA and re-open it later, you’ll need a special Federal PIN. You have to apply for this separately, and it can take a few days before it’s processed and sent to your inbox. You also need a PIN because you have to use it to electronically sign your FAFSA form.
If you don’t have a PIN when you fill out the form, you can still turn it in. You simply have to print off a signature page and sign it by hand before sending it in. This can be a hassle, though, so you’re better off just applying for a PIN as soon as you know you’re going to have to fill out the FAFSA in any given year.
4. Once you get your FAFSA filled out, check the Student Aid Report (SAR) very carefully. Double check that all the numbers are correct, as it could be a big headache if they aren’t! If you need to revise any numbers, do it as soon as possible, and the information will quickly be updated in federal files and for all the schools you’ve sent the report to.
5. Speaking of schools, it’s important that you send the FAFSA to all your college student’s prospective schools for the next year. During your child’s senior year of high school, you’ll actually fill out the FAFSA at the beginning of second semester, probably before he or she has made a final choice on colleges. If you even suspect that your student is wavering between schools still, just send the report to all schools that might still be on the list.
Sometimes the information you get back from a school after you fill out the FAFSA can push you student’s choice in one direction or the other. Although all schools will get the same information, they won’t all deal with that information in the same way. This means some options could end up being a lot cheaper than you thought after you send out your Student Aid Report.
6. Get to know your EFC. Your EFC is your Expected Family Contribution for your schooling. It depends on a variety of factors, including how much money you make, how much money your student makes, how many children you have in school, and the expenses related to the school you’re looking at. Your EFC for a public school could be the entire tuition, but it could leave a big gap that the government and the school should fill if you choose a private school instead.
The EFC doesn’t have to be cash you have on hand to pay for school. Sometimes it can be covered with loans and such. If you’re part of the middle classes, you might have trouble here. Your EFC is likely to be high, but you may still be unable to pay for school on your own. This is why many students end up graduating with student loan debt.
Your EFC may change a bit from year to year, and there are things you can do to get it lowered, such as reducing your reportable assets. However, if you don’t actively try to lower your EFC, it’s likely to be about the same from year to year. This means that you can easily start preparing for the next three years of college after you’ve filled out your first FAFSA.
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