Why Every Senior Should Complete the FAFSA

Two weeks into the waiting game, seniors may be wondering what they can do besides twiddle their thumbs and make sure they finish high school on a high note. In previous years, January signified a frantic effort to gather tax documents from the previous year to fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application is necessary if students wish to receive federal loans or need-based financial aid from their prospective colleges. This past year, the Department of Education made the start date October 1st, so you may have already filled out your FAFSA and sent it in. If not, you’ll definitely want to apply online, as some programs have limited funds and offer them to students on a first-come, first-served basis. Even if you have already submitted your FAFSA, there are some important steps you can take while you wait to hear back from colleges.

If you haven’t completed the FAFSA, you definitely want to consider doing so. You may feel that you will not qualify, but the Department of Education encourages every college-bound student to complete the FAFSA. You never know if you qualify for a federal grant or loan, and the DoE has made it easier this year to fill one out. First, you must submit prior-prior year tax information, which you and your parents have likely already completed. Rather than run around gathering documentation, you only need to sit down with your parents and your 2015 tax forms for the necessary information. You can even use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your tax information directly to your FAFSA form. Secondly, you may fill out the FAFSA online and have it processed within days. Finally, if you feel hesitant about putting the work in, you can use the FAFSA4caster to get an estimate of eligibility for federal student aid.

In addition to the earlier start date, the DoE has made another significant change to the FAFSA. In previous years, students were required to rank their colleges by order of preference, which concerned families who didn’t want colleges to know where they stood on the list. This year, schools will not be able to see which other schools are listed on your FAFSA. You may list up to 10 schools on the online FAFSA and may add more later. If you wish to be considered for state aid, some states require you to list your schools in a particular order. As of January 2017, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia have specific requirements about listing state colleges in a certain order. For the other states, the order will not impact eligibility for state aid programs.

If you have already completed your application, now is a great time to ensure that you have everything documented properly. After you filled out your FAFSA, between three days if you applied online and three weeks if you applied by mail, you should have received a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR should not be confused with an award letter – which tells you how much aid you can receive from a college that accepted you; it does, however, tell you your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The actual amount a college will expect your family to contribute may differ from the EFC listed on your SAR, but it can provide you with a ballpark estimate for how much to expect to pay out of pocket (or take out private loans to finance).

The start of the new year is also a great time to review your FAFSA to see if there are any mistakes that need correction. Even after the application has been processed and you have received your SAR, you may make corrections online.

Waiting for acceptance and financial aid offers can be stressful, and sometimes it’s helpful to have something concrete that you can work on before April 1st. If you haven’t completed the FAFSA yet, try out the FAFSA4caster to see if you are eligible for a federal grant or loan. If you have completed your FAFSA, make sure to review your EFC on your Student Aid Report and begin to think about what it would look like to finance education at your prospective college.

For more information, visit studentaid.ed.gov.

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