How to Prepare for the FAFSA

To help you make sure that you do everything necessary to get the aid you need for college, we’ve put together a list of tips for preparing your FAFSA for submission.

FAFSA Free Application for Federal Student Aid

1. Understand FAFSA Basics

The FAFSA form is submitted just one time each school year, even though your child may be applying to more than one school. Even if he or she hasn’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, the FAFSA can filed online or downloaded at http://www.fafsa.gov. Some high schools may also have printed FAFSA forms available.

The FAFSA collects financial information primarily, so be prepared to answer questions about your current financial situation.

Note: the 2011-2012 FAFSA will not be available until January 1, 2011. Use the time between now and then to get prepared and get all of your questions answered. Federal Aid is first-come-first-serve, so make sure you are ready to go as soon into the new year as possible!

2. Determine Who Will File: The Parent or Student?

This is often a point of confusion for parents and students who will be filing the FAFSA for the first time. The FAFSA is filed in the name of the student – the one who will be receiving the financial aid. The eligibility determination is for the student – it’s the student who is eligible or ineligible for aid based on the information supplied on the FAFSA.

Depending on the dependency status of the student (see #3 below), the parent’s financial information may be required.

Regardless of who does the actual filing of the FAFSA, the student’s signature is always required, and if the student is considered a dependent, at least one parent must also sign the FAFSA (see #7 below).

3. 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.

To access the worksheet, click here. Note that the 2011-2012 worksheet is not available yet, but last year’s will give you a good idea of what your child’s status will be.

4. File Tax Returns Early

In order to complete the FAFSA fully, you need to have information from your tax return. For the 2011-2012 school year, you will need to have your 2010 tax return information ready. This applies to both students who worked during 2010, and the parents of dependent students.

Tip: Do not wait for your tax return just to file the FAFSA! If you don’t have your tax return, you are allowed to submit preliminary information about your taxes, and then come back and add your tax return information in later. This will not hold up the student aid report; just don’t forget to complete the process at tax time!

Of course, if your tax return information turns out to be vastly different than what you estimated, your child’s financial aid eligibility could change.

Special circumstances:

If you don’t plan to file your taxes, there is a box you can check to indicate that. If your child will be considered an independent student, he or she will not need to provide your tax return information.

5. 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.

To make this easier, we’ve put together a list of documents you’ll need to have with you. In a nutshell, for the 2011-2012 school year, you’ll need:

  • Social security numbers

  • Student’s 2010 W-2s and tax returns

  • Parent’s 2010 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)

6. 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 2011-2012 worksheet isn’t available yet)

7. Apply for 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, or you can print, sign, and mail in the signature page which will be provided to you when you complete the FAFSA. Both students and parents need to sign the FAFSA.

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.

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 to go ahead of the new year.

Questions?

If you have any questions or need additional guidance, please contact us via the Ask the Experts page, or leave a message on our Facebook page.