Gaithersburg’s “Blue Crew” Goes for the Green During FAFSA Fill-in Day

The media center at GHS was packed for “FAFSA Fill-in Day”. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The media center at GHS was packed for “FAFSA Fill-in Day”. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

I wish all my mornings could be like this – visiting schools filled with excited students, as they explore their options and take action to turn their college dreams into realities.

Students, teachers and administrators packed the Media Center at Gaithersburg High School (GHS) in Gaithersburg, Maryland as they prepared for their “FAFSA Fill-in Day” to encourage seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at school, and find out more information regarding other financial aid options, and scholarships. They’d been kind enough to ask a team of us from the Department to join them – and there was no way I was going to miss out on the experience!

School spirit filled the room. A sea of blue Gaithersburg apparel adorned the crowd in the Media Center, with the phrase “Blue Crew” emblazoned on shirts and sweaters. Multiple flags from around the world hung from the ceiling, celebrating the diversity of the Gaithersburg High School community.

In the crowd, a familiar face stood out to our Department of Education (ED) staff. GHS English Resource Teacher and former Teacher Ambassador Fellow, Ms. Jennifer Bado-Aleman, welcomed attendees and announced that Federal Student Aid representatives were on hand to answer questions about the application. As seniors began filling out their forms, I was invited to a roundtable where students described their experiences in using the FAFSA, shared their college and career aspirations, and even opened up about some higher education fears.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college. Unfortunately, I didn’t look into it until last year,” one senior explained. “We need to start a plan by our freshman year,” interjected another. When I asked about the college information they needed, some mentioned: information about which majors specific colleges offer, guidance on how much to emphasize extra-curricular activities on their college applications, and how much their average SAT scores would count in how colleges considered candidates. Others said they took a step further and first looked at careers they wanted to pursue, before narrowing down their list of schools with a strong focus in that field.

They were pleased to learn that ED had released our College Ratings framework. President Obama asked our Department to design a ratings system that will give parents and students more information about their college choices by recognizing institutions that focus on accessibility, affordability and completion. The students also offered their opinions on how and by which measures colleges should be rated, including the quality of their majors, their graduation rates, and the employment rates of their graduates. Others chimed in on ratings options as the conversation continued:

“Financial aid to students,” Blake volunteered.

“Internship placements,” added Joanne.

“Tuition rates,” said Hakeem.

Parker thought colleges should be rated on “freshman retention, and the employment of their graduates. [Colleges] need to consistently be living up to their expectation.”

Chatting about the FAFSA. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Chatting about the FAFSA. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

I was glad to be able to share the many ED resources and tools that help students guide and focus their college search, like the College Navigator, which allows students to search for colleges based on majors, institution type and geography, and the College Scorecard, which gives students access to more information about a school’s affordability and value.

Paying for college was another important theme; and several students expressed fears about student debt. “My siblings all went to college and now struggle to pay their loans,” DJ noted. Blake told me he’d been considering out-of-state schools, but didn’t want to be saddled with years of loans to repay.

I’ve heard from many students who worry about how they will manage their student debt. That is why President Obama outlined a set of actions that can help borrowers better manage their student loan debt, including expanding his Pay As You Earn plan so more borrowers can cap monthly payments at 10 percent of their income. In addition, those that enter public service full-time may have their loans forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Since President Obama took office, our Department has made key investment in federal student aid such as creating the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, raising the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,000, and bringing millions of dollars back into the hands of students by eliminating billions of dollars of subsidies to banks.

The first step in receiving federal student aid is filling out the FAFSA, just like so many of the students I visited in Gaithersburg did. Getting help to pay for college is the best investment any student can make in their future. So, go for the green! Learn more and help us spread the word by visiting StudentAid.ed.gov.

Ted Mitchell is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education.

FAFSA Completion Numbers Now Available via Updated Tool

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We’ve updated our FAFSA Completion Tool!

Back in March of 2012, ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) announced the release of this innovative tool to help guidance professionals, school administrators, and practitioners track and subsequently increase FAFSA completions at high schools across the country.

Over time, we enhanced the Tool to not only provide FAFSA submission and completion totals for high schools during the current year but also totals for the same time the year before and other key benchmark dates.

The 2015 version provides updated information on a weekly basis during the peak FAFSA application period. This means that counselors and administrators will have access to current data so they can more accurately gauge the impact of outreach efforts and identify successful local strategies.

Before we developed the tool, the only source of data on FAFSA completions that high schools had was from self-reported student surveys, which were highly unreliable.

Now, educators have real-time access to reliable data to track FAFSA submission and completion and gauge their progress in increasing FAFSA completion. This is incredibly important because studies have indicated that FAFSA completion correlates strongly with college enrollment, particularly among low-income populations.

We encourage high schools to use this data as one component of a comprehensive college access and completion program within their school. To help educators, counselors, and others with this and other aid awareness and loan repayment efforts, we’ve created the Financial Aid Toolkit.

The Toolkit consolidates financial aid resources and content into a searchable online database, making it easy for individuals to quickly access the information they need to support their students. It also provides counselors with access to valuable resources, such as how to host a FAFSA completion workshop. We’re also encouraging folks to help us get the word out about FAFSA completion on their social media accounts – and we’ve even written some sample posts to help get the conversation started!

The Tool is a critical component of President Obama’s FAFSA Completion Initiative and this year, local completion efforts are getting a boost from Mrs. Obama’s “FAFSA Completion Challenge,” a video competition the First Lady recently launched to encourage more high school students to complete the FAFSA.

FAFSA data isn’t just for determining eligibility for federal student aid. Many states, institutions, and private organizations rely on the FAFSA to determine eligibility for non-federal sources of aid.

Last year, over one million high school seniors did not submit the FAFSA, which made them ineligible for federal grants and loans, as well as most state-based and institutional aid. When students complete the FAFSA, they help themselves and make a positive contribution to their school, communities, and states.

The promise of the FAFSA Completion Tool lies in its simplicity and its use of current data to effectively measure the success of FAFSA completion efforts. Last year, it provided FAFSA submission and completion data for the senior classes at over 25,000 high schools in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and all U.S. territories.

For more information on the Tool and to search updated FAFSA Completion Tool data by high school for the senior class of 2015, visit StudentAid.gov/FAFSA-HS-Data.

Todd May is Federal Student Aid’s Director of Communication Services and Greg Fortelny is the Acting Director of Federal Student Aid’s Customer Analytics Group.

When Should You File Your FAFSA?

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The short answer is … it depends.

There are school deadlines, state deadlines, and a federal deadline. An easy rule of thumb to remember is: You should submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) based on the earliest due date possible.

If you plan to attend college between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, and you want to be considered for financial aid, your deadline could be as early as February!

You don’t have to wait until you or your parents file your taxes to submit your FAFSA; you can estimate your tax information and update your FAFSA later.

For college deadlines, visit the school’s website or contact its financial aid office.

Check out the table below for information about states with first-come, first-served programs and information for states and territories that require checking in with your school’s financial aid office. If your state is not listed in the table below, click here to find your state’s FAFSA deadline.

For more specific deadline information from your state of legal residence, use this easy FAFSA deadlines tool.

April Jordan is a Senior Communications Specialist at Federal Student Aid.

How to Easily Transfer Tax Information to Your FAFSA

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January makes me think of holiday parties, tax returns, and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). If you are like me, a world-class procrastinator that agonizes every year at the thought of filing a tax return and submitting a FAFSA, then you are not alone. You also know that it can be time consuming. Now imagine a time-saving process where you instantly transfer your tax information directly into your FAFSA. Actually, there’s no need to imagine; this process exists and you can learn more about it below.

  1. What is the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT)?

The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) is a tool accessible in the finance section of the FAFSA that will take you to the IRS website. After you log in by providing information exactly as you provided it on your tax return, you will be able to preview your tax information before agreeing to have it directly transferred to your FAFSA. When you return to the FAFSA, you’ll see the relevant questions populated with your information automatically; courtesy of the DRT. You’re welcome.

  1. Why use this tool?
  • It’s so easy that it only takes a click of a couple buttons to transfer all your tax information.
  • It can be used by both students and parents.
  • Most importantly, it is accurate so you don’t have to worry about entering the wrong tax information on your FAFSA.
  1. When can I use the tool?

The IRS DRT is available the first Sunday in February. However, when your information will be available will depend on when you submitted your tax return.

  1. If I already completed the FAFSA using estimates, can I use the IRS DRT to update my FAFSA once I filed my taxes?

Yes, if you estimated, you will have to update your FAFSA once you have filed your taxes anyway. So why not use the IRS DRT? It’s the easiest way to update your FAFSA. To update your estimates, click “Make FAFSA Corrections” after logging in to fafsa.gov. Navigate to the “Finances” section and indicate that you have already completed your taxes. If your tax return information is available and if you are eligible to do so, you should follow the prompts that allow you to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer your tax return information into your application.

    1. Why can’t I use the IRS DRT?

If you’re not seeing the IRS DRT, there may be a few reasons why:

  • It is not available for use yet.
  • You indicated that you will file or are not going to file a federal income tax return.
  • Your marital status changed after December 31 of the previous calendar year.
  • The student/parent filed a Form 1040X amended tax return.
  • The student/parent filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return.

If you are not able to use the IRS DRT, don’t worry. Although you’ll be required to enter your tax information manually, we have great resources on StudentAid.gov that walk you through the process.

Now that you know the secret to transferring your tax information to the FAFSA, I hope you will enjoy the time you saved!

Zelma Barrett is a Management and Program Analyst at Federal Student Aid.

Resources to Help You Fill Out the FAFSA

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FAFSA®: An Introduction

If you or someone you know is considering enrolling in college, now is the time to complete the financial aid application – the FAFSA. Students of all ages complete the FAFSA to be considered for financial aid from the federal government, and in most instances, additional money from the state in which they reside and the college they want to attend. That’s why the FAFSA is so important – it is the gateway to three potentially big sources of financial aid from federal, state, and college entities. If you don’t complete a FAFSA, you could be missing out on a lot of financial aid. The data you enter on your FAFSA is used to calculate an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is the number that’s used to determine your eligibility for federal student aid and is an indicator of your family’s financial strength to pay for college or career school.

FAFSA: Before you file

A wide array of resources is available to help you navigate the college financial aid process. Before you file your FAFSA, you might want to check out some of the most popular sites to get more information. For a comprehensive source of information on preparing, planning and attending college, take a look at StudentAid.gov. This U.S. Department of Education website is a one-stop source of information for students and their families and is designed to help you through every step of the financial aid process.

You can find general information about federal student aid and many of our publications, brochures, and fact sheets by going to StudentAid.gov/resources. Check the above website for the availability of our publications in English, Spanish, PDF, and Braille. Examples of these publications are listed below:

    • Funding Your Education: The Guide to Federal Student Aid helps students and parents understand the financial aid process and directs them to resources.
    • Financial Aid for Graduate and Professional Students helps graduate and professional degree students understand what types of federal student aid are available to them. It tells them how to apply for aid, what to consider when taking out a student loan, and where else they can look for graduate school funding.
    • College Preparation Checklist explains how to prepare academically and financially for college through “to do” lists aimed at elementary and secondary school students and their parents, as well as adult students. This is the primary publication for any student considering college.
    • My Future, My Way: First Steps Toward College is a workbook for middle and junior high school students that explains how to prepare academically and financially for college. The publication includes charts, checklists, and other activities to engage students as they gain more information about college preparation and costs.

You also may want to check out FAFSA4caster – an early eligibility estimator that can help you plan ahead when it comes to paying for college.

FAFSA: Ways to File

There are three ways to complete a FAFSA:

1) Online at fafsa.gov, (This is the quickest and easiest option!)

2) Access FAFSA to print out a FAFSA PDF

3) Call 1-800-4-FED-AID [1-800-433-3243] to request that a paper FAFSA be mailed to you.

In some cases, you might be able to apply directly through your school. You should check with the financial aid administrator at the school you are interested in attending to see if the school can assist you with your application.

If you need help understanding a specific question on the FAFSA, this guide . Online filers who need additional assistance with a particular question can use the online help or the “Help and Hints” box on the right-hand side of the screen for each question. Keep in mind that filing a FAFSA online is faster and will enable you to benefit from multiple checks to make sure your form is fully complete. (The paper versions, obviously, don’t have this benefit.)

FAFSA: Next Steps

Wondering what happens next? Here are 5 Things To Do After Filing Your FAFSA.

Adam Essex is a Management and Program Analyst at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

Help Us Get the Word Out About the FAFSA

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For us at the U.S. Department of Education, the start of a new year provides a fresh opportunity to remind parents, students, educators and others about the importance of submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA ®). The Department’s office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) provides more than $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds each year to help students pay for college or career school. Completing the FAFSA is the primary step for determining eligibility for federal student aid and subsequently accessing these funds. With the 2015-16 FAFSA having gone live on January 1, FSA is requesting your assistance in promoting FAFSA completion.

We are asking for your help in getting the message out through your social media channels about the importance of completing the FAFSA early in the year. To help you do that, FSA has developed some resources for you to use. They include sample Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, informative videos, photos and infographics. These and other great resources can be found on FSA’s Financial Aid Toolkit. These resources can be tailored to best fit your needs. If you’re new to social media or just looking for ideas on how to easily use these resources or how others are using them, view this presentation.

In addition, over the next few months, FSA’s Digital Engagement Group will be actively managing our own presence on social media with a strong focus on FAFSA completion. We highly encourage you to use and repost our content whenever applicable. Here are the places you can find us:

facebook      twitter     youtube     storify
Thanks for your support and commitment to advancing the higher education goals of students and families across the country.

Susan Thares is the Digital Engagement Lead at the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

5 Things To Do After Filing Your FAFSA

Congratulations! You submitted your 2015-2016 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)! Wondering what happens next? Here are a few things to look out for:

  1. Review Your Student Aid Report (SAR)

After you submit your FAFSA, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR). Your SAR is a summary of the FAFSA data you submitted. Once you have submitted your FAFSA, you’ll get your SAR within three days (if you signed your FAFSA online) to three weeks (if you mailed a signature page.)

Any student with a Federal Student Aid PIN can view and print his or her SAR by logging in to fafsa.gov and clicking on the appropriate school year. This is also where you can check the status of your application if you have not received your SAR yet. Once you get your SAR, you should review it carefully to make sure it’s correct and complete. 

  1. Review Your EFC

When reviewing your SAR, look for the Expected Family Contribution (EFC)  number. Your EFC can be found in the box at the top of the first page of your SAR, under your Social Security number.

Your EFC is a measure of your family’s financial strength and is calculated according to a formula established by law. This formula considers your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) as well as your family size and the number of family members who will attend college during the year.

Schools use your EFC to determine your federal student aid eligibility and your financial aid award. However, it’s important to remember that your EFC is not the amount of money your family will have to pay for college nor is it the amount of federal student aid you will receive. It is a number used by your school to calculate how much financial aid you are eligible to receive. Contact your school’s financial aid office if you have any questions about how they calculate financial aid. 

  1. Make Corrections If You Need To

It’s important to make sure that everything on your FAFSA is correct and complete, as your school may ask you to verify some of the information.

Do you need to update any information?

  • It’s easy to make corrections at gov. Simply log in and click “Make FAFSA Corrections.” You’ll need to enter your Federal Student Aid PIN to make any corrections. Corrections should be processed in 3-5 days and you should receive a revised SAR. Detailed instructions here.
  • Did you submit your FAFSA using income and tax estimates?
    To correct your application after filing your taxes, click “Make FAFSA Corrections” after logging in to gov. Navigate to the “Finances” section and indicate that you have already completed your taxes. More details here.
  • Has your situation changed?
    Most information cannot be updated because it must be accurate as of the day you originally signed your FAFSA. You should speak to the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend if there will be a significant change in your or your parent’s income for the present year or if your family has other circumstances that cannot be reported on the FAFSA. There are, however, certain items that you must update. Click here to find out what those are.
  1. Review Your Financial Aid History

The last page of your SAR includes information about your financial aid history, specifically the student loans you have taken out. It’s important to keep track of how much you’re borrowing and to understand the terms and conditions of the loan. Click here to learn more about federal student loans.

Remember: You can always access your financial aid history by logging into My Federal Student Aid. Make sure you have your PIN and Social Security number ready.

  1. Double-Check With Your Schools

Lastly, make sure that you double-check with the financial aid offices at the schools you applied to.  Sometimes schools need additional paperwork or have other deadlines. You never want to leave money on the table!

Sandra Vuong is a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid.

Top 5 FAFSA FAQs

Got Questions About the FAFSA

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the first step in accessing the more than $150 billion available in federal student aid. Since the 2015-16 FAFSA launched, the Digital Engagement Team at Federal Student Aid has responded to hundreds of FAFSA questions via Federal Student Aid’s social media accounts. (Yes, believe it or not, we do actually read what you tweet at us or write on our wall and do our best to respond to as much as we can!) In doing this, we’ve found that there are a few FAFSA questions that are asked a lot. We want to help clear up any confusion, so let’s go through them:

Why do I have to pay to complete the FAFSA?

You don’t! You never have to pay to complete the FAFSA. After all, the first “F” in FAFSA stands for FREE! There are companies that will charge you a fee to file your FAFSA, but you can always complete the FAFSA for free on the official government website: fafsa.gov. (Notice the .GOV!) If you need help with the application, we have resources available for free.

How can I complete the FAFSA if my parents or I haven’t filed my 2014 taxes yet?

When filling out the 2015-16 FAFSA, you’ll want to use financial information from the 2014 tax year. At this point in the year, many people haven’t received their Form W-2, let alone completed their 2014 taxes. But that shouldn’t stop you from completing the FAFSA! If you or your parents have not completed your taxes yet, you can estimate your income and other tax return information, and then correct your application after you have filed your taxes.

If your 2014 income is similar to your 2013 income, use your 2013 tax return to provide estimates for questions about your income. If your income is not similar, use the Income Estimator for assistance estimating your adjusted gross income, and answer the remaining questions about your income to the best of your ability.

Note: Once you complete your 2014 taxes, you’ll need to update your FAFSA. When you do so, you may be eligible to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA, and transfer the data directly into your FAFSA from the IRS website.

When is the FAFSA deadline?

States, schools, and the federal government each have their own FAFSA filing deadlines. It is important that you research all of these deadlines and complete the FAFSA by your earliest deadline. That being said, because some types of aid are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, it is highly recommended that you fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can to ensure that you do not miss out on available aid.

Do I have to complete the FAFSA every year?

Yes, you need to fill out the FAFSA each school year because your eligibility for financial aid can differ from year to year for various reasons, including your family’s financial situation and the number of your family members enrolled in college. If you filled out a FAFSA last year and want to renew it, go to fafsa.gov, click “Login”, and be sure to select “FAFSA Renewal” once given the option. That way, many of the (nonfinancial) questions will be pre-filled for you. Just be sure to update any information that has changed since last year.

Which FAFSA should I complete?

When you log into www.fafsa.gov, you will be given two different options: “Start a 2014-15 FAFSA” and “Start a 2015-16 FAFSA.” Which should you choose?

If you’ll be attending college between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2015, select “Start a 2014-15 FAFSA.”

If you’ll be attending college between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, select “Start a 2015-16 FAFSA.”

Remember, you must complete the FAFSA each school year, so if you’ll be attending college during both periods of time, you should fill out both applications.

TIP: If you need to fill out both applications, complete the 2014-15 FAFSA first. That way, when you complete the 2015-16 FAFSA, a lot of your info will automatically roll over.

If you are applying for a summer session, or just don’t know which application to complete, check with the college you are planning to attend.

We hope that helps answer some of your questions. If you have additional questions about the FAFSA, you can send us your questions via Facebook and Twitter. For more information about completing the FAFSA, visit StudentAid.gov/fafsa.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid.

7 Common Myths about Financial Aid

College application deadlines are fast approaching and you may be wondering if you can even afford to go to college. What you might not know is that the federal government provides almost $150 billion a year to help students just like you pay for college. Right now, you’re probably thinking of all of the reasons why you won’t qualify for financial aid. Please don’t waste your time worrying- you could be using this time to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Here are some common myths about financial aid that you shouldn’t believe.

Myth #1: My family makes too much money for me to qualify for aid.

There is no income cut-off for federal student aid. Your eligibility for financial aid is based on a number of factors and not just your income. Plus, many states and schools use your FAFSA data to determine your eligibility for their aid. If you’re not sure what you will get, the best way to know for sure is to complete the application!

Myth #2: I need to file taxes before completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or (FAFSA).

You can use estimated information on your FAFSA so you’ll be able to submit it before you file taxes. In fact, many states and schools have financial aid deadlines well before the tax deadline. So completing your FAFSA earlier is a good idea. You might want to base your estimates on last year’s tax return, and once you file your taxes, you can log back in and update the information. You may even be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically import your tax information into your FAFSA. 

Myth #3: The FAFSA is too hard to fill out.

This is a very common misconception, but the FAFSA has come a long way! It’s easier than ever to complete online. The form uses “skip logic,” so you are only asked the questions that are relevant to you. And if you’ve filed your taxes, you can transfer your tax return data into your FAFSA automatically. As a result of improvements like these, the average time to complete the FAFSA is now less than 21 minutes. If you do get stuck, help is available by Web chat, e-mail and phone.

Myth #4: My grades aren’t good enough for me to get aid.

Eligibility for most federal student aid programs is not linked to your academic performance. However, you will need to maintain grades that your school considers satisfactory in order to continue receiving financial aid. 

Myth #5: My ethnicity or age makes me ineligible for aid.

There are basic eligibility requirements, but ethnicity and age are not considered.

Myth #6: I support myself, so I don’t have to include parent info on the FAFSA.
This is not necessarily true. Even if you support yourself and file taxes on your own, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes. You can determine your dependency status by answering these questions. If you are independent, you won’t need to include your parents’ information on your FAFSA. But if you are dependent, you must provide your parents’ information.

Myth #7: I already completed the FAFSA so I don’t need to complete it again.
You need to complete the FAFSA every year you plan to attend college or career school. Don’t worry; it will be even easier the second or third time around since a lot of your information will be pre-populated on the application.

Millions of students complete the FAFSA each year and receive financial aid to help pay for college. Don’t let these myths stop you from achieving your goals. Take the first step by completing the FAFSA at fafsa.gov.

Tara Marini is a communication analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

7 Common FAFSA Mistakes

  1. Not Completing the FAFSA®

I hear all kinds of reasons: “The FAFSA is too hard,” “It takes to long to complete,” I never qualify anyway, so why does it matter.” It does matter. By not completing the FAFSA, you are missing out on the opportunity to qualify for what could be thousands of dollars to help you pay for college. The FAFSA takes most people 21 minutes to complete, and there is help provided throughout the application. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, there is no income cut-off when it comes to federal student aid.

  1. Not Being Prepared

The online FAFSA has gotten a lot easier over the last few years. We’ve added skip logic, so you only see questions that are applicable to you. There is also an option to import your tax information from the IRS directly into the FAFSA application. But, the key to making the FAFSA simple is being prepared. You’ll save yourself a lot of time by gathering everything you need to complete the FAFSA before you start the application.

  1. Not Reading Carefully

You’re on winter break and probably enjoying a vacation from reading for a couple weeks. I get it. But when it comes to completing the FAFSA, you want to read each question carefully. Too many students see delays in their financial aid for simple mistakes that could have been easily avoided.

Don’t rush through these questions:

  • Your Number of Family Members (Household size): The FAFSA has a specific definition of how your or your parents’ household size should be determined. Read the instructions carefully. Many students incorrectly report this number.
  • Amount of Your Income Tax: Income tax is not the same as income. It is the amount of tax that you (and if married, your spouse) paid on your income earned from work. Your income tax amount should not be the same as your adjusted gross income (AGI). Where you find the amount of your income tax depends on which IRS form you filed.

Tip: If you use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, this number will be pulled for you, directly from your income tax return.

  • Legal Guardianship: One question on the FAFSA asks: “As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you in legal guardianship?” Many students incorrectly answer “yes” here. For this question, the definition of legal guardianship does not include your parents, even if they were appointed by a court to be your guardian. You are also not considered a legal guardian of yourself.
  1. Inputting Incorrect Information

The FAFSA is an official government form. You must enter your information as it appears on official government documents like your birth certificate and social security card. Examples:

  • Entering the Wrong Name (Yes, I’m serious): You wouldn’t believe how many people have issues with their FAFSA because they entered an incorrect name on the application. It doesn’t matter if you’re Madonna, or Drake, or whatever Snoop Lion is calling himself these days. You must enter your full name as it appears on official government documents. No nicknames.
  • Entering the Wrong Social Security Number (SSN): When we process FAFSAs, we cross check your social security number with the Social Security Administration. To avoid delays in processing your application, triple check that you have entered the correct SSN. If you meet our basic eligibility criteria, but you or your parents don’t have a SSN, follow these instructions.
  1. Not Reporting Parent Information

Even if you fully support yourself, pay your own bills, file your own taxes, you may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes, and therefore, you’ll need to provide parent information on your FAFSA. Dependency guidelines for the FAFSA are determined by Congress and are different from those of the IRS. Find out whether or not you need to provide parent information by answering these questions.

Bonus: Who is my parent when I fill out the FAFSA?

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  1. Not Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

For many, the most difficult part about filling out the FAFSA is entering in the financial information. But now, thanks to a partnership with the IRS, students and parents who are eligible can automatically transfer the necessary tax info into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This year, the tool will launch on February 1, 2015. In most cases, your information will be available from the IRS two weeks after you file. It’s also one of the best ways to prevent errors on your FAFSA and avoid any processing delays.

Tip: If you used income estimates to file your FAFSA early, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to update your FAFSA two weeks after you file your 2014 taxes.

  1. Not Signing the FAFSA

So many students answer every single question that is asked, but fail to actually sign the FAFSA with their PIN and submit it. This happens for many reasons, maybe they forgot their PIN, or their parent isn’t with them to sign with the parent PIN, so the FAFSA is left incomplete. Don’t let this happen to you. If you don’t have or don’t know your PIN, apply for one. If you would like confirmation that your FAFSA has been submitted, you can check your status immediately after you submit your FAFSA online.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.

Parents: Tips To Help Your Child Complete the FAFSA

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If you’re a parent of a college-bound child, the financial aid process can seem a bit overwhelming.  Who’s considered the parent? Who do you include in household size?  How do assets and tax filing fit into the process? Does this have to be done every year?  Here are some common questions that parents have when helping their children prepare for and pay for college or career school: 

Why does my child need to provide my information on the FAFSA®?

While the federal government provides nearly $150 billion in financial aid each year, dependency guidelines for the FAFSA are determined by Congress. Even if your child supports himself, he may still be considered a dependent student for federal student aid purposes. If your child was born on or after January 1, 1992, then he or she is most likely considered a dependent student and you’ll need to include your information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Who’s considered a parent when completing the FAFSA?

If your child needs to report parent information, here are some guidelines to help:

  • If the child’s legal parents (biological and/or adoptive parents) are married to each other, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If the child’s legal parents are not married to each other and live together, answer the questions about both of them.
  • If the child’s parent is widowed or was never married, answer the questions about that parent.
  • If the child’s parents are divorced or separated, follow these guidelines.

More information on who’s considered the parent can be found here: http://1.usa.gov/1AbWmp6

Who’s considered part of the household?

When completing your child’s FAFSA, you should include in the household size: parents, any dependent student(s), and any other child who lives at home and receives more than half of their support from you.  Also include any people who are not your children but who live with you and for whom you provide more than half of their support.

Do we need to wait to apply until I file my income taxes?

Deadlines in some states are before the tax filing deadline so you’ll want to ensure your child files his or her FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1st to maximize financial aid. You do not need to wait until you file your federal tax return.  If you haven’t done your taxes by the time your child completes the FAFSA, you can estimate amounts based on the previous year if nothing has drastically changed.  After you file your taxes, you’ll need to log back in to the FAFSA and correct any estimated information.  If you’ve already filed your taxes, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically pull in your tax information directly from the IRS into the FAFSA. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool will be available February 1, 2015.

Do I need to do this every year?

Yes, you and your child need to complete the FAFSA each year in order for your child to be considered for federal student aid.  The good news is that each subsequent year you can use the Renewal Application option so you only have to update information that has changed from the previous year!

What else do I need to know before I begin?

You’ll need to get a PIN and have all the necessary documents before you begin.  Here’s a handy checklist: http://studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa/filling-out

Susan Thares is the Digital Engagement Lead at the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid.

5 Reasons You Should Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid

Did you hear? The 2015-16 FAFSA became available on January 1, 2015! Fill it out: fafsa.gov

If you will be attending college between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016, you should complete the FAFSA. Here are some reasons why:

It’s FREE!

The FAFSA is free to complete and there is help provided throughout the application. Several websites offer help filing the FAFSA for a fee. These sites are not endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. We urge you not to pay for assistance that you can get for free at the official government website: fafsa.gov.

It’s easier than ever.

We’ve done a lot over the past few years to simplify the FAFSA. One of the most exciting enhancements has been the launch of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. The tool allows students and parents to access the required information from their IRS tax return to complete the FAFSA, and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS website with just a few clicks. This year, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will launch on February 1, so be on the lookout for that. Also, for those who have completed the FAFSA in the past, when you go to renew your FAFSA for the upcoming school year, a lot of your information will automatically roll over, saving you lots of time.

It takes less than 21 minutes to complete.

Did you know that, on average, it takes less than 21 minutes to complete the FAFSA? That’s less time than it would take you to watch your favorite TV show! And think of the benefits! Spend 21 minutes completing the application and you could qualify for thousands of dollars in financial aid. Talk about return on investment…

More people qualify than you’d think.

If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you could be missing out on a lot of financial aid! I’ve heard a number of reasons students think they shouldn’t complete the FAFSA. Here are a few:

  • “I (or my parents) make too much money, so I won’t qualify for aid.”
  • “Only students with good grades get financial aid.”
  • “The FAFSA is too hard to fill out.”
  • “I’m too old to qualify for financial aid.”

These are all myths about financial aid. The reality is, EVERYONE should fill out the FAFSA! Don’t leave money on the table.

You may need it to apply for state and college financial aid and even private scholarships!

Completing the FAFSA is the first step toward getting financial aid for college, career school, or graduate school. The FAFSA not only gives you access to the $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds that the federal government has available, but many states, schools, and private scholarships require you to submit the FAFSA before they will consider you for any financial aid they offer. That’s why it’s important that every college-bound student complete the FAFSA. You’ll never know what you get unless you apply.

For information and tips on completing the FAFSA, visit StudentAid.gov/fafsa.

Nicole Callahan is a Digital Engagement Strategist at the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid.