It’s December, which means that most students are starting to stress out about financial aid and the FAFSA, if you haven’t started already. There were some pretty big shakeups in the FAFSA this year and the purpose of this article is to give you the five things I have learned about the FAFSA after dealing with it for the six years I have been in college and graduate school thus far. Hopefully these tips will help you whether you are a first year FAFSA completer or someone who has completed it multiple times and just needs a refresher.
1. Start Early
There was a huge change to the FAFSA this year! The open date for the FAFSA this year was October 1st. Isn’t that crazy? I remember very vividly stressing out about the January 1st 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 and much stuff 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 as we will talk about in the next point. Keep your eye on the prize, and don’t forget to double check that all of your names, numbers, and ducks are in a row before you submit your FAFSA.
Keep a detailed record of all the information you set up during your first visit to the FAFSA website. There will be so many things you set up like site passwords and pins. You will continue to need these as you get older, 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 family lost their career and so their FAFSA needed to have some changes made to it. Unfortunately now the FAFSA uses old tax documents so what your parents turn in this year won’t be for 2016, but instead it will be for 2015. It’s a bit of a nightmare (and if your parents income has dramatically changed since 2015, they encourage you to fill it out 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 Elect 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 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.
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 things 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
The last tip, your college student financial aid office wants to help you with questions you have about the FAFSA. The universities you are thinking of attending probably 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 application for federal aid, but if you have a few questions, write them down and call or write 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.
I hope that you enjoyed these 5 tips for FAFSA success. If you are looking for more information about how to own during scholarship season, check out my post on my blog all about private scholarships. This guide to private scholarships is comprehensive and it gives you the tips I used to earn private scholarships through my school and state during my undergraduate years.