Need money for college? Fill out the FAFSA.

Mariah Davis
Mariah Davis is a freshman at Hamline University in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Mariah Davis
The U.S. government has a huge pot of money given to each state and then to each institution to divide up among the students based on who has the most need for the money. -- Chee Xiong, Admission Possible coach

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the form that college students fill out when they can’t afford to pay every penny out of their own pocket. The FAFSA helps schools determine how much to award to students in state and federal grants, scholarships, loans and work-study jobs.

Here are some important tips to get it right:

Go to www.fafsa.ed.gov to find the form and fill it out online for free. Filling out the form can be challenging, but counselors at your high school or in the financial aid office at the college you want to attend can usually help. It’s available to all incoming college students and it’s free to fill out. Beware of websites like fafsa.com, which charge $79.99 to help you fill out the form.

The FAFSA is a questionnaire used by the government to determine how much income you and your family have. You answer a series of financial questions about you and your parent. If parents are separated or divorced, the best choice is to include the parent who makes less money.

Another important thing to remember: If you don’t fill the FAFSA out right and by the proper deadlines, you will receive less money to help with your college payments.

Chee Xiong, an Admission Possible coach at Arlington High School, explained how the FAFSA works: “The U.S. government has a huge pot of money given to each state and then to each institution to divide up among the students based on who has the most need for the money.”

Before you fill out the FAFSA, you must apply for a PIN number which is used to you log in and sign your FAFSA report. You will need this same PIN every time you file your FAFSA report, so it’s important to write it down somewhere you can find it. “One thing most students will have trouble remembering is their PIN number,” Xiong says. “I don’t think I really was able to remember my own PIN number until after I’d already finished college.”

Fill out the form as early as possible each year because the money for grants and loans is limited. The FAFSA becomes available on January 1 every year, and it’s ideal to file it in February, according to James Hammer, a financial aid counselor at the University of St. Thomas. Your parents will have to file their tax forms first because you need that information for the FAFSA, so make sure they file their taxes as soon as they can.

If you fill out the FAFSA late, most of the grant and loan money will be gone. Michael Hunter, a former student at the University of Minnesota, didn’t turn in his FAFSA soon enough and ended up not being able to afford his tuition.

“When I was going to school, I was juggling a part-time job and classes. In the midst of it all I had forgotten to turn in some paperwork for my FAFSA loans,” he said. “I couldn’t take out more loans because by the time I figured it out I couldn’t add money to the FAFSA.”

Hunter ended up being awarded around $1,500 from a federal loan and $2,000 from a scholarship. That left him $3,500 in debt to the U of M for that semester.

The FAFSA is designed to award financial aid to students based on need as established by their estimated family contribution, or EFC. A lower EFC means that your family has less money to help pay for college. The lower your EFC, the less money the government expects you to contribute for college. However, “some students with an EFC of zero, if they apply really late, there’s no money left to offer them,” said Xiong.

Make sure you have accurate information. “There isn’t supposed to be leeway. You put in what’s accurate,” said Eagan Heath, a senior Admission Possible coach at Humboldt High School in St. Paul. “The less money you show the government you make, the more money you get.”

Record your income and your family’s income accurately, Xiong said. “Ultimately, if you are honest you get the most out if it, whether it is loans for grants.”

See Lee, a freshman at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, advises students to look at the form carefully and know all the information they need before they complete it.

In order to fill out the FAFSA you must have a number of documents handy. The College Board recommends having the following information handy for you and your parents:

  • Social Security numbers
  • Federal income tax returns
  • W-2 forms
  • Current bank statements
  • Records of untaxed income (such as welfare benefits, Social Security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)
  • Records of any stocks, bonds, or other investments

Make sure you have your parents’ copies of all of these forms, especially if you are classified as a dependent. The government needs to know any possible contribution they could make to paying your tuition. Some parents may be reluctant to hand over this information, but it’s essential.

The FAFSA is only the first step in the financial aid process. Both Heath and Xiong agree that once the FAFSA has been filled out it’s important to build a relationship with your financial aid counselor at the college you want to attend.

“They are the ones that divide up the moolah and have the real control on how much you can get,” Xiong explains.

Counselors at different schools can come up with different financial aid packages, so Heath advises, “Keep options open. Apply to lots of schools, lots of different types of schools.”

This is especially important if your financial situation suddenly changes right before you start college, and your financial award no longer covers what you need. If this happens, go to the financial aid counselor and ask if they can adjust the award. Heath believes that “it’s always worth a try to ask if they can offer you more money.”

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