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The Edmit Guide to the CSS Profile

Key Takeaways:

  • The CSS Profile is used by hundreds of universities to determine how much financial aid to award.
  • Unlike the FAFSA, the formula used is proprietary, and can vary depending on the college that is using the form.
  • In general the CSS Profile requires more in-depth information than the FAFSA.
  • Some of the key differences between the FAFSA and CSS Profile: how they treat home equity, divorced parents, and retirement savings.

While most high school students thinking about financial aid have heard of the FAFSA, fewer have heard of the CSS Profile application, found here or on individual college websites. Created by the College Board, the CSS Profile is a much more robust application than the FAFSA, and allows the colleges that accept it to take a more detailed look into your family’s finances. The FAFSA is based on a federal formula and always dictates how much government financial aid a student is eligible for. But when a school requires the CSS Profile, the additional information is used to determine whether a student is eligible to receive private aid dollars from that university.

What Is the CSS Profile and How Does It Work?

Whereas the FAFSA formula is one-size-fits-all and results in an expected family contribution, or EFC, the CSS Profile is more like a survey. It gathers data from students and families - and then colleges use their own calculations to determine a student’s need for private aid from that institution. The amount can vary drastically from school to school. Every college or university emphasizes different categories on the CSS Profile, and the custom questions asked beyond the preliminary registration can shape your financial aid package greatly.

This is why colleges requiring the CSS Profile say they use the “Institutional Methodology”, whereas the FAFSA operates on the “Federal Methodology.” While your FAFSA application is viewed with a set formula in mind, without much room for flexibility or reconsideration, the CSS Profile is more comprehensive - and more factors mean more complexity and a wider range of results.

Why the CSS Profile?

Although only about 200 colleges require the CSS Profile to be completed in addition to the FAFSA, the majority of those school are among the most selective. In addition to the 200+ schools that require a completed CSS Profile, an additional 200 or so accept it as an optional inclusion. So the CSS Profile is likely a necessity for high school students considering applying to more selective colleges and universities.

Find out if the schools on your list require the CSS Profile:


The CSS Profile provides colleges with a much more thorough and accurate picture of a family’s true financial background than the FAFSA does. The CSS Profile uses some of the same tactics that the FAFSA does, but the ways in which they differ can make all the difference, and amount to thousands of dollars in additional financial aid. The CSS Profile requires not only the past two years of tax filings, but also the current year estimate, unlike the FAFSA which only requires the last 2 years of returns. You will also be asked to estimate your future income.

The CSS Profile is also substantially longer the FAFSA application and can take over two hours to complete due to the volume of factors considered, so make sure you have the time to sit down and complete it thoroughly. The CSS Profile also has a $25 fee attached to apply, as well as an additional $16 fee for every school it is sent to, although a limited number of fee waivers are available. In comparison, the FAFSA application is completely free to complete and submit.

In order to complete your CSS Profile application, you will need the following information and documents:

  • Your Social Security Number (or, Your Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)

  • Your federal income tax returns

  • W-2 forms and accurate records of your current year income

  • Any untaxed income and benefits, assets, and bank statements

  • Your mortgage information and any small business ownership information

How Does The CSS Profile View Assets and Income?

The CSS Profile considers a longer list of assets than the FAFSA when evaluating your financial need. For example, any assets owned by your grandparents, aunts, or siblings would not be considered on the FAFSA, but those assets may be requested when completing the CSS Profile application.

The CSS Profile is considered differently by every institution that reviews it, and different aspects may be weighted according to the individual policies of that college. For example, while recording any retirement assets is a requirement to completing the CSS Profile, most financial services departments at schools don’t consider it in their final review. The CSS Profile will also adjust and customize certain questions based on responses you have given in your preliminary registration, giving you the ability to tailor your responses and provide additional information.

When it comes to income, the CSS Profile considers the money you have, but it also takes into account the expenses your family is responsible for. The Profile asks questions about your medical history as well as your family’s, any debts incurred by you or them, where your home is located, and business expenses you may not have otherwise been able to clarify on the FAFSA (source). If you have a sickly parent, for example, that requires expensive medical care, or siblings that attend private school, these expenses are taken into consideration.

Below is the information that the CSS Profile collects for universities, in addition to all the same information that the FAFSA collects.

Here’s a handy blog that spells out the key differences between the FAFSA and Profile.

Categories with different requirements:

  • Income, taxes, and exemptions: the CSS Profile requests the past two years of tax filings in addition to the current year estimate

  • Family business/farm: the FAFSA only asks for information if your family business or farm exceeds 100 employees, whereas the CSS Profile requests it regardless of the size of the business.

Categories included on the CSS Profile that are not required on the FAFSA

  • Equity in family home

  • Trust funds

  • Medical spending accounts (including HSAs and FSAs)

  • Siblings’ assets held in parent’s name

  • Siblings’ K-12 private school tuition

  • Total retirement savings

  • Non-retirement annuities

  • Other valuables

The Bottom Line About the CSS Profile

Both the CSS Profile and FAFSA are essential tools that can help you earn free aid in the form of scholarships and grants that you don’t have to pay back. Although both programs are used to evaluate for need-based aid, many colleges also use the information to provide support to students that won’t qualify for need-based aid through institutional grants and stipends.

While the CSS Profile is more daunting, it does not necessarily mean you’ll receive less financial aid. The Profile gives a complete picture of your finances to those reviewing your application. Many schools that use the Profile do so because they are interested in being more generous with those that truly need the help. So don’t shy away from applying!