If you haven’t watched the Hallmark Channel in the last few days, you might be surprised to find out that Christmas movies have already begun. The holidays are upon us, and that means the New Year is quickly approaching. And as the New Year arrives, if you are heading to college in the fall, you should be thinking about filing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
When the FAFSA becomes available on January 1st, you want to be the first in line, so to speak. Students who complete the government form early are more likely to receive funds set aside by the colleges for financial aid. If you don’t complete the FAFSA, you won’t receive any aid. Everyone should file the FAFSA, even if you think you won’t qualify for federal aid.
Here are 10 tips to help you prepare for the FAFSA:
1. Understand FAFSA Basics
The FAFSA primarily collects financial information, so be prepared to answer questions about your current financial situation.
The FAFSA form is submitted just one time each school year, even though you may be applying to more than one school. Even if you haven’t been accepted to a college or university yet, it’s important to file the FAFSA as early as possible.
Once it is made available (January 1st), the FAFSA can be filed online at http://www.fafsa.gov. Some high schools may also have printed FAFSA forms available.
2. Set Aside Time
The FAFSA can take some time to prepare for and complete. Make sure you allow enough time in your schedule to complete the FAFSA by your financial aid deadlines.
3. Apply for a FAFSA PIN Now
In order to file your FAFSA form electronically online, you will need to sign it. This can be done electronically with a PIN. If this will be your very first time filing the FAFSA online and you are going to use an electronic PIN, you can apply for your FAFSA PIN now at http://www.pin.ed.gov/. Keep this PIN handy. You will reuse this PIN every time you want to access your FAFSA or your SAR (Student Aid Report), and you will reuse it every year that you apply. Both parents and students will need their own PIN.
4. Determine Dependency Status Ahead of Time
Every student who applies for financial aid with the FAFSA will either be considered a dependent or an independent student. There is a special worksheet created for this- don’t assume that it corresponds to your tax status.
The reason this is important is that a student’s dependency status can change the financial aid award package significantly. You don’t get to choose the status- you have to use the specified guidelines to determine dependency.
The Federal Student Aid website will help you answer all your dependency status questions.
5. Determine Who is Filing
Although the student is the official FAFSA filer and his or her information is always included on the application, dependent students (those still financially supported by their parents) must file with their parents. There are sections for both the parent and the student; those who don’t live at home anymore and financially support themselves do not need to provide any information on their parents.
Including or excluding a parent’s/parents’ personal and financial information has a different impact on each student’s financial situation and the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is used to determine if the student is eligible for a Pell Grant and additional financial need.
6. Use Preliminary Tax Information
Although a finished tax return makes filing the form a little easier, it’s not required for FAFSA completion, says Karen McCarthy, spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).
“Families can complete the FAFSA with estimated tax information and then make corrections once the tax return is filed, if necessary,” she says. “Meeting state and institutional deadlines is more important than completing the FAFSA with final tax information and families should complete the FAFSA with estimated information if necessary by the applicable deadline.”
Greene explains that if three to six weeks have passed between students and their families filing the FAFSA and completing their tax return, it’s possible for the Department of Education to retrieve the IRS tax return after first submitting or updating the FAFSA.
“This saves you from having to transfer all the information yourself,” she says.
7. Gather Documents Before Starting
Filing the FAFSA will be much easier if you have everything together before starting. In fact, now is the perfect time to make sure everything is in order before the form goes live in January.
Here is a list of all the documents you will need:
- Social security numbers
- Student’s 2014 W-2s and tax returns
- Parent’s 2014 W-2s and tax returns (if student is dependent)
- Bank statements
- Business financial statements (if student or parents own a business)
- Citizenship records – alien registration or permanent resident card (if you are not a U.S. Citizen)
8. Use the FAFSA on the Web Worksheet
The FAFSA on the Web Worksheet is a convenient way to organize all of the required information you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA. To access a PDF version of this worksheet, click here. (Note that the 2015-2016 worksheet isn’t available yet, but you can still get familiar with the form.)
If you previously applied for a FAFSA PIN, you will be able to retrieve it or check the status of it on that website as well; go ahead and make sure you have it ready ahead of the New Year.
9. Update the FAFSA if Necessary
Most of the questions on the FAFSA want to know your situation as of the day you sign the FAFSA. However, there are some instances in which you’ll want to (or be required to) change the information you reported. You can make the following changes, according to the Federal Student Aid website:
10. Don’t Wait Until the Last Filing Deadline
Deadlines can vary by school, state, program of study, and more. Find out your various deadlines and complete the FAFSA by the earliest one. Remember that the “early bird gets the worm”, and with the FAFSA, the early bird gets the money