How to Avoid Costly FAFSA Mistakes

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Filling out the FAFSA, the federal form for requesting financial aid, is one of the single most important things your family can do when trying to get financial aid. Schools and the federal government use it almost as a “give me money, and let me know what I can borrow” letter.  

Richard Castellano, spokesperson for Sallie Mae, gave us his best tips for using the form to maximize financial aid awards.

1. Waiting too long to file.


“The vast majority of families are waiting to file until January,” says Castellano. The reason is the October 1st FAFSA opening date is fairly new. Families also may not be aware that tax information is for prior prior year. Thus, they don’t need to file their current year’s taxes before filing out the form. 

How does waiting hurt families? Many schools give out aid such as university grants on first-come, first-serve basis. Thus, a few months can mean up to thousands of dollars less in financial aid. 

2. Not filling out the Renewal FAFSA.


Filling out the FAFSA isn’t a one-time activity. Every year, it should be filed as close to October 1st as possible. The good news is the form is faster to fill out than it is for the first year because basic information such as addresses is pre-populated. However, you will need to update addresses if someone moved.

3. Not filling out the FAFSA at all.


Too many families aren’t filling out the FAFSA either because they think they won’t qualify for financial aid or it’s too complicated. 

“My family makes too much money. Why even bother?” Is a typical response by families, Castellano. However, everyone qualifies for federal student loans at low interest rates, some schools offer partial need-based aid to even upper middle class families, and Pell Grants have more income flexibility than many people think.

4. Paying to complete the FAFSA.


The FAFSA is both free to fill out and there’s a toll free number to call when you have questions. Yet, there are professionals who charge families for helping them fill out the FAFSA. It isn’t necessary.

5. Not listing schools.


A school can’t give you money if you don’t ask for it. When you apply for the FAFSA, you can list 10 schools and then change them later if needed.

The order you list schools is also important, as some state schools are more likely to give you financial aid if they’re listed near the top.

6. Missing state-based scholarship and grant applications.


The FAFSA is about much more than federal student aid. States also use the information for awarding grants and scholarships. However, there can also be a separate form to give the state additional information. 

To not miss out on state aid, don’t click out of the final FAFSA screen. It may contain a link to the state application. You also should go to state financial aid pages to get more information on scholarships and grants that could be available to you.

7. Thinking filling out the FAFSA is the only step in asking for financial aid.


Filing the FAFSA is just the starting point in the financial aid, even from schools themselves. Contact college financial aid offices and ask about scholarships based on merit and financial aid that fit both your skills that may require a filling an application beyond the FAFSA.

5 Takeaways

  • Not filling out the FAFSA can be a costly mistake no matter what your income level is. Nearly everyone qualifies for federal student loans and many schools give some financial aid to families with a wide range of incomes.
  • Filing early matters. Some financial aid is issued on a first-come, first-serve basis.
  • Your student should fill out their school list, even if your student isn’t sure which school they want to attend yet. List state schools first incase they give more aid to individuals listing their school early in the list.
  • Don’t click out of the last page before reading it. It may contain important information such as a link to state scholarships or grants.
  • The FAFSA is the starting point instead of the ending point for getting financial aid at school. Fill out all necessary forms for school and state scholarships and grants.

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