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Tips on filling out the FAFSA for college students and their parents

You can file the FAFSA online at studentaid.ed.gov,

You can file the FAFSA online at studentaid.ed.gov, through the myStudentAid mobile app or by mail. Credit: AP/Jon Elswick


If your family expects to have a student in college next fall, you may already feel dread about filling out the FAFSA form.

But fear not -- the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is not nearly as bad as it used to be.

“Those who have never completed a FAFSA likely have heard stories about how difficult and time-consuming it is to complete,” said Rick Shipman, executive director of financial aid at Michigan State University. But, he said, “things have changed.”

The online system can help you reduce errors and speed up the process, he said. The program for filling out the form also uses a process called “skip logic” so only questions that are relevant to you will pop up during the process.

Experts advise filing as early as possible. Some awards are first-come, first-served.

“If you file early, you are considered for the greatest number of aid programs because money runs out in some programs,” Shipman said.

The basics

The FAFSA filing season opened Oct. 1 for financial aid covering the 2020-21 academic year. Schools also may have their own deadlines, so check with the school you’re interested in attending.

The federal financial aid form is essential if you want to qualify for federal student loans, work-study programs and grant money. You don’t pay a dime to fill out the free application. See www.fafsa.gov.

Remember, you have to submit a form each year you’re in school to qualify for financial help.

You can file the FAFSA online at www.studentaid.ed.gov or through the myStudentAid mobile app.

Parents can pay a fee to outside counselors for advice, but the Collegewise site also has some free tips at collegewise.com/resources.

How to avoid mistakes

While there’s much buzz about the October kickoff, you don’t want to rush and then get sloppy filling out your data. Data entry mistakes will slow down the process, warns Erin Powers, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Students also can reduce errors by using the Internal Revenue Service’s online Data Retrieval Tool to import financial information directly to the FAFSA, rather than entering it manually, Powers said. The tool transfers data directly from your federal income tax returns.

If you don’t use the data retrieval tool, you must refer to a copy of your 2018 tax return that you have in your possession. If you don’t have a copy, you can get one by downloading a tax transcript online at irs.gov.

Don’t leave spaces blank. Rather, enter a zero or “not applicable” if it doesn’t apply. Don’t use commas or decimal points in numeric fields. Instead, round to the nearest dollar. Don’t use a nickname: Your name must be listed on your FAFSA as it appears on your Social Security card.

Another tip: When it comes to the amount for federal income tax paid, look at your income tax return forms from two years prior, not your W-2 form.

Technical glitches

Students and their families who use an Apple device — mobile or desktop — are being warned that they may encounter errors on some FAFSA fields if the “smart punctuation” feature is enabled. You may need to turn those features off or use another device, such as Internet Explorer on a desktop.

Also, allow pop-ups. You’re going to need to ensure that the pop-up blocker on your browser allows you to get alerts and pop-ups from fafsa.ed.gov.

Some assets don't count against you

As part of the FAFSA process, you do need to report the value of savings accounts, stocks and bonds, and real estate, but not the value of the home where your family lives. And remember, you do not need to report the value of your pension plan, 401(k), 403(b) or IRAs.

Comparison shopping

All financial aid offers won’t be the same. If you apply to more than one college, take a careful look at what’s being offered. What is a loan and will need to be repaid? What is free money? Pay careful attention to how much money has to come out of your own pocket through work, loans and savings.

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