*Updated December 2, 2021
Most students stress out about financial aid and the FAFSA, particularly as the deadline gets closer. But don’t worry. In this article, I will give you the five key lessons I have learned about the FAFSA after dealing with it during my four years of undergraduate years, as well as grad school. Hopefully, these tips will help you whether you are a first-time FAFSA completer or someone who has completed it multiple times and just needs a refresher.
1. Start early
The open date for the FAFSA this year is now October 1. Isn’t that crazy? I remember very vividly stressing out about the January 1 open date and wondering when I’d finally be able to turn in my FAFSA.
If this is your first time completing a FAFSA, starting early is the best thing you can do. The first time is ALWAYS the hardest time. You have to set up so many things the first time that, unless major changes happen in your life, you will never have to set up again. This is great, but it means your first time will be a pain.
You can save as you go with the FAFSA, but I think the best thing you can do is set aside a good chunk of time to just go over the site with your parents and fill in as much information as possible. Don’t submit it right away the first time you do it. Sleep on it! You don’t want to make any mistakes, which we will talk about in the next point. Keep your eye on the prize, and don’t forget to double-check the accuracy of all the information, including names and financial information, before you submit your FAFSA.
Keep a detailed record of your site passwords and pins you set up during your first visit to the FAFSA website. You will continue to need these in the coming years, so be sure to write them down and keep them in a safe space.
2. Be consistent
Consistency is key when it comes to keeping up with the demands of the FAFSA. Things are likely to change from year to year. For instance, I knew students whose parents lost their jobs and had to make changes to their FAFSA as a result.
Also, beginning with the 2017-18 FAFSA, applicants and their parents are required to use tax information from an earlier year. For example, the 2022-23 FAFSA form requires 2020 — and not 2021 — tax information. It’s a bit of a nightmare, but don’t worry. If your parents’ income has dramatically changed since they filed their tax returns, the federal government encourages you to fill out the FAFSA the way they ask and then contact your school for help.
Lack of consistency across years may mean your FAFSA and financial aid needs to go through a process called verification. This is not a bad thing — think of it as an audit of sorts to make sure that all your ducks are in a row. Sometimes verification is strategic, but most of the time it’s random. These audits aren’t as scary as President Donald Trump’s audits are. You can easily get through these audits with a little planning and email checking.
It’s okay if you can’t keep things as consistent as you would like. Sometimes things happen that you cannot control. Don’t get down on yourself if you are pulled for verification. Instead of fear, relax and handle it.
3. Keep up with updates
Every student needs to be vigilant about the potential of needing to go through the verification process. I was luckily never chosen for verification through my years as an undergraduate and graduate student, but anyone under the sun can be chosen. If you are chosen, you need to understand that this is serious, and it could impede your financial aid opportunities. Check your email at least once weekly to see if you have received anything about your FAFSA needing to be verified. More than likely you won’t get this email, but you need to stay on top of it if you do.
If you get an email about your account needing to be verified, get any paperwork they request and make sure you get it to them in a timely manner. The sooner you get past the verification stage, the sooner your tuition bill will be swimming in FAFSA money. Also, the sooner you can stop gritting your teeth with fear that you won’t be able to pay for college.
For more information about the verification process, check out this U.S. News & World Report Article: Do 4 Things If Your FAFSA Is Selected for Verification.
4. Don’t get fooled by FAFSA help sites
The next thing is simple: Don’t get fooled by FAFSA help sites. So many sites pop up all the time offering to help you fill out the FAFSA for a small fee. These sites can prey on people who don’t have a good family support system to help them fill out the FAFSA. Be very wary about giving up your hard-earned cash in order to get help with the FAFSA. Yes, it can be very confusing, but there are free resources out there. This FAFSA guide, for example, will answer many of your questions.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to pay for filling out the FAFSA either. The FAFSA is a completely free tool, hence the name, Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If a site is saying you have to pay to fill out the FAFSA, you are on the wrong site. Here is a direct link to the FAFSA website.
Your connection to the FAFSA site should always be secure, as this is a government website. You should not have to enter your credit card information, although you will have to give out confidential information like social security numbers. This site is connected the federal government, so that just makes sense.
5. Don’t be afraid to call your financial aid office
Your college student financial aid office wants to help you with questions you have about the FAFSA. The universities you are thinking of attending should have a wealth of information about federal aid already listed on their website, but if you need more information, a quick call to the financial aid office will not hurt you. They probably won’t be able to walk you through the entire process of filling out your FAFSA, but if you have a few questions, write them down and call or send an email to ask for help. Asking when you need help is a practice you will have to learn for college anyway, so you might as well get started with this skill early in your collegiate career.