If applying for college wasn’t enough work, there’s another obstacle to overcome before you enroll: you need to figure out how to pay for it. Luckily, there are a lot of funding options available for students, the first one being federal student aid, a no-strings-attached sum of money that you can put toward your tuition costs.
Money can be a complicated topic to talk about, even with your family. But when it comes to preparing for college, money is definitely not something you should brush to the side. This may be the first time you’re handling major finances and it’s a big deal. You don’t want to sign on to loans that will bury you in debt, but you do want to go to the school that’s perfect for you!
Many schools that may seem out of reach are accessible through financial aid, and by filling out the FAFSA you can find out what grants, scholarships, and work-study options you’re eligible for. (It also tells you what loans you can get, but let’s leave that as a last resort, honey.)
So what is the FAFSA, you ask? It’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is serviced through the U.S. Department of Education and simply estimates the amount of financial aid you are eligible for. Without the FAFSA, forget about state or federally funded financial aid.
Should you fill out the FAFSA? YES. Even if you don’t think your family qualifies, you should still fill out FAFSA. Why? Because every year millions of students fail to fill out the FAFSA and collectively they miss out on BILLIONS of dollars. That’s a lot of unnecessary student loan debt, don’t you think?
There are so many options for financial aid and the FAFSA will tell you if you’re eligible for some help. Remember, just because your family can afford to pay full tuition, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to pay full tuition.
Think of tuition like the sticker price on a car or the asking price for a house. Colleges are anticipating a lower tuition offer from the family’s of prospective students, and in most cases, they’re happy to meet somewhere in the middle by throwing in scholarships or grants to help cover your tuition costs, lowering your family’s expected contribution. And most of this is done automatically through FAFSA.
Now that you’re filling out the FAFSA (good job!!) you need to get ready to talk about $$$ with your parents because, unless you are completely independent, their financial situation will determine your eligibility for aid. Hopefully, you and your parents have talked about money in a real, honest way before, but that’s often not the case with every family.
Don’t worry! I’ll get you through this. Keep in mind that your parents may not feel comfortable combing through every detail of their tax return in front of you. Or maybe doing paperwork drives them crazy. And they’re probably starting to anticipate you leaving for college, which can agitate them. Take a deep breath and maybe make a snack to enjoy while you tackle this challenge together.
Once you’ve mentally prepared, get all of your paperwork together. Do you know your social security number? Driver’s license number? Tax information? You’ll need to fill all that out in addition to your parents’ information.
That means you should make sure your parents have that ready, too. This is your future, so get proactive and help your parents prepare. It’s a lot easier to fill out the FAFSA when you don’t have to run around the house looking for last year’s tax return information.
Next, make your FSA ID account. This account allows you to log in to all of your federal aid accounts and look at your aid estimates. You and your parents need an account and please, for the love of all things good, write down your account information. You make so many accounts every day but this one is important. Like REALLY important!! Keep it in a safe place because this is not the account that you want to be waiting for the reset link to arrive in your inbox.
Now that you’re all logged into the FAFSA, breezing through the forms because you have all of your documents ready to go, what happens if you’re unsure how to answer a question? Don’t sweat it, this may be your first time filling out forms like this and the questions can be confusing.
You can save your progress and log out if you need to while waiting for your answer. The Department of Ed. website has great resources to help answer your questions. If robo-answers aren’t cutting it and you need to talk to a human, reach out to your school’s counseling center. They deal with this every year and can definitely help.
When can I apply? The FAFSA now opens in October of the year before you apply to college. This is perfect for those applying for early admission at schools because you can get a financial aid estimate before your deadline to accept admission.
When should I fill out FAFSA? As soon as possible! The earlier you apply, the better your chances are of getting your full financial needs met. You don’t have to wait until you finish your college applications to submit your FAFSA and you shouldn’t! Circle October 1st on your calendar – or sign up for our email list and get reminders of these important dates delivered straight to your inbox.
What if I have separated parents? Put whoever you lived with the most in the last year or if you don’t live with them, whoever financially supported you the most. If your parents are together you supply both of their info.
What documents do I need? Your last tax return, your current bank information, and your social security number. You can also use the IRS data retrieval tool which autofills the boxes in your FAFSA, but it doesn’t always work, so be prepared to have that information handy.
What schools should I put on my FAFSA? The FAFSA sends your financial information to schools so they can turn around and offer you aid. Put every school you’re applying to or even thinking about applying to! Even if it’s a reach school, you want to know what they’re able to offer you if you get in. Plus, the first students to submit their FAFSA forms are usually given bigger and better financial aid offers since much of the aid is distributed on a first come, first served basis.
What if I mess up on the FAFSA? Don’t sweat it!! Even after submitting the form, you can log back in and correct it. That being said, do your best to get everything right the first time, especially your personal information. Save yourself a future headache by going over everything you put in one last time before you submit.
When will I hear how much aid I’ll get? The FAFSA will send what they believe is your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). That number isn’t set in stone, but it allows you to guess how much aid you’ll be offered by subtracting the EFC from the cost of tuition.
Once your FAFSA has been sent out to your schools you will get individual offers from schools you’re offered admission to. This is why it’s important to fill out the FAFSA early, so when all of your admission letters come rolling in, you’ll have a good idea of what you can afford.