Sure, your family can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form without assistance. But the forms can be confusing.
Before your family sits down to file your FAFSA, do your homework to ensure that you're filling it out correctly. Brittania Morey, director of communication at the Iowa College Access Network, shares some of the most common pitfalls to avoid when filing the FAFSA:
- Time it right. The FAFSA should be filed as soon after Jan. 1 as possible and before the schools' priority filing deadlines. Your most recent federal and state tax records are needed. If necessary, tax and income information can be estimated, but the FAFSA will need to be updated once taxes are filed. "Every school has their own priority deadline. The biggest rule of thumb is you always want to meet the priority deadline rather than having your taxes completed," Morey says. "When families don't file by the priority deadline, it can hurt them."
- Know which assets count. Typically, the only assets you need to include on the form are checking and savings balances, personal investments and any additional real estate you own, not counting the house you live in. You don't need to include retirement income, such as pensions or 401(k) and Roth IRA accounts. If you are a business owner or farmer, call ICAN at 877-272-4692 for free assistance in determining whether you need to include that information on your form.
- Use full legal names. The FAFSA is linked to the student's social security number, so it's important to use the student's full legal name, the way it appears on your child's social security card.
- Answer questions as if you're the student. "Most of the time, parents are filling out the form for the student, but the form is written as if the student is filling it out," Morey says. "Sometimes parents make mistakes when answering questions about marital status. It's important to answer the questions as if you are the student."
- Choose your challenge question carefully. When you request your personal identification number (prior to filling out the form), pick a challenge question with an answer that isn't likely to change during the course of your child's college education. "The big mistake there is that people will forget the answer to their challenge question, so they lose access to their PIN number," Morey says. "It locks them out of the system and delays the process."
By Emily Kittle