College is expensive, and unless you’re independently wealthy, you should look to save money on your college costs whenever you can. This is why the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is so important.
The FAFSA allows students and families to apply for federal grants as well as institutional grants and scholarships that can lower your college costs by thousands of dollars per year, without having to borrow student loans or pay back the money you receive.
These grants and scholarships are need-based, so they depend on your income and assets. But everyone should apply because many families receive need-based aid, even if they have a relatively high income.
It all depends on the total cost of attendance at each school compared to your income and assets, how much aid your family qualifies to receive, and how much each school decides to offer your family.
Don’t miss out on financial aid! Make sure to submit the FAFSA and make sure do it on time. Here’s when you should do it:
When to Submit the FAFSA
This year, everything is going to be different with the FAFSA, and the application is being delayed until at least December 2023. A new application, new rules, and new financial aid formulas have been introduced, and the application process is being delayed in order to allow more time for the new FAFSA to be implemented and for colleges to be ready to use the new rules and formulas.
Despite the delay this year, you need to start planning and getting ready to submit your FAFSA now.
All colleges have a priority deadline for financial aid, and typically it’s as early as November 1 at some schools. Since the FAFSA is being delayed this year, priority deadlines will likely be changed at many schools. But some colleges use other financial aid forms, such as the CSS Profile, and they might not change their deadlines for those forms.
Check with the schools on your list to make sure you know all the financial aid forms they require, when the deadlines are, if they require the FAFSA, make sure to submit your FAFSA at least one week before the priority deadline at each school.
Everyone with a high school student should be working on the FAFSA right now, even if you have a younger student who isn’t graduating in the near future. Depending on your student’s graduating class, here are some important tips to keep in mind:
Seniors: If you’re the parent of a high school senior, it’s “go” time. Do your last-minute financial aid planning and be ready to submit your FAFSA as early as December, 2023.
Juniors: If you have a high school junior, you’re only one year away from applying for financial aid, and it’s helpful to learn about the FAFSA and how it works. You should start planning right away and understand what you’ll be doing a year from now.
Sophomores: If you have a sophomore, your base tax year for financial aid will be 2024, so you only have until the end of this year to execute any tax or financial plans to maximize your chances of qualifying for aid.
Freshmen: You can never start planning for college too soon. Make sure you understand the FAFSA process, how financial aid works, and start working on your college financial planning as early as possible. The work you do now will potentially save you a lot of time and money once you’re a senior in high school and heading off to college.
No matter where you are in the process, don’t procrastinate. I’ve never had students or parents tell me they started too soon, but I’ve had many tell me that they started too late, and it cost them thousands of dollars in missed opportunities for financial aid, scholarships and other college savings.
Once it’s time to fill out your FAFSA and apply for aid, here’s what you’ll need to do:
1. Get an FSA ID.
Students and parents need to get an FSA ID, which is required to access financial aid information from the U.S. Department of Education and electronically sign your FAFSA forms. There will be one for the student and another for one of the student’s parents. Your FSA ID is used to confirm your identity when accessing Department of Education online systems and signing documents with e-signature.
You can get your ID early, and sometimes it takes a couple of days, so start now. Once you have a parent FSA ID, you can use it for all your kids. And your student can use their student FSA ID for all four years of college. As always, keep your ID and login credentials safe, as they can be used to log in and access information at various federal student aid and loan websites.
To create your FSA ID, visit the FSA ID page at the Federal Student Aid website. Look for
the button and link near the top of the page:
2. Verify that your school doesn’t need the CSS Profile or other forms.
The CSS Profile, which stands for College Scholarship Service Profile, is an online application created and maintained by the College Board. It allows college students to apply for non-federal financial aid.
The CSS profile is an additional financial aid form used at about 300 colleges, including many top schools and prestigious private colleges.
If your school doesn’t need the CSS Profile, you don’t need to worry about it. If it does, you need to complete both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, which means you need to plan and prepare to do more work.
The CSS profile is not free. It costs $25 to fill out and submit the form to one school, and it costs $16 to submit it to each additional school. The CSS profile is also much longer than the FAFSA, so it will take more time to complete. A few schools may also require their own financial aid form or forms.
Here is list of institutions that use the CSS profile. You can also make a quick visit to the financial aid section of a school’s website to find out which financial aid forms are required.
Here’s a quick example from the Division of Financial Aid at the Purdue University website. Based on a review of Purdue’s instructions for how to apply for financial aid, only the FAFSA is required.
3. Get all your financial aid done at least one week before each school’s priority financial aid deadline.
This year, since the new FAFSA has been delayed until at least January 2024, things are different. But the typical priority deadline for financial aid is Nov. 1, Dec. 1, Jan. 1 or Feb. 15 at most schools. This deadline means you must have everything submitted and verify that your submission has gone through by this date.
Make sure to check your school’s priority deadline for financial aid, and make sure to submit and verify all your financial aid submissions at least one week before this deadline. This will help you avoid any timing issues or last-minute delays. You should get all of your information together and have it ready by October, even though you may not submit it at that time.
You won’t get more aid by being one of the first to submit the FAFSA. There’s a myth that you’ll get more money if you submit your application earlier, but that’s not exactly true. In 99.99% of cases, submitting a few days or weeks early isn’t any better. But they’re both much better than being late.
DO NOT hesitate or wait to work on your financial aid. You need to allow enough time to complete your forms and submit all your information, and you should submit everything and verify it at least one week before the priority deadline at each school. This is why it’s a good idea to start early, by at least gathering everything you need.
If you’re a student in the process of applying, you may already have a username and password at the college where you can track financial aid forms and their status.
Most schools receive all financial aid submissions, transcripts, financial aid forms, letters of recommendation, and all required materials through the same portal.
BREAKOUT TIP: Students must check their email.
When applying for federal and non-federal aid, students will receive email notifications about things they need to review, read, or do at the Federal Student Aid portal or college websites. If they don’t take care of these items, they might fail to complete the financial aid process and miss out on financial aid entirely.
Even though a lot of students think email is “so 1990s,” and it’s an antiquated way of communicating, it’s still how colleges communicate with students. Make sure your student checks their email and pays attention to any notifications related to college and financial aid.
4. You can calculate how much aid you’re likely receive.
Beyond applying for financial aid, you can actually do some calculations to verify how much aid you can expect and what your Student Aid Index (SAI) will be. Your SAI is calculated as part of the FAFSA process and is a number that most colleges use to help determine how much your family can afford and how much federal financial aid to offer your student.
You can use my SAI calculator to calculate this amount based on the same financial aid formulas used by the U.S. Department of Education. You can even email a copy of the results to your inbox or print a copy for your records.
You can use my SAI calculator throughout your college planning process, and you can also use it to verify that the financial aid that colleges offer you is in line with what you should expect.
5. Always apply for aid, even if you don’t think you’ll get any.
Unless you’re wealthy enough or your time is so valuable that you don’t care about college costs, you should apply for financial aid. You don’t want to assume anything and miss out on opportunities to help your student pay for college.
Your best bet is to apply for aid for each year of college. If you don’t receive any offer of aid during the first couple of years and your financial situation hasn’t changed, then you can consider not applying.
6. Verify Your SAR against your predictions.
After you fill out and submit your FAFSA, you’ll get a student aid report (SAR). You can then verify that your student aid index (SAI) and aid qualification from the U.S. Department of Education is in line with your predictions (from tip #4 above).
If you haven’t predicted your SAI and how much need-based aid you might receive, you need to get over to my SAI calculator and get started.
If things don’t match up, verify what went wrong. Did you enter the correct and same data in both places? Was anything missing? If you can’t figure out the discrepancy, the colleges can help you. Or you can hire me to help you with this or any other area of college planning.
7. Have your student set up usernames and passwords with college admissions tracking portals.
Applying for financial aid and applying for admission are two different processes. You may need to set up a username and password to submit an application through your college’s application portal, or a login will provided once you’ve applied, through the college’s tracking system, which is usually part of the same portal. Always check your school’s dates and deadlines for applying for financial aid, admissions, scholarships, etc.
Getting Started and Finding More Resources
Now that you know the 7 Quick Tips for FAFSA Season, if you have a high school senior, it’s time to get started! If you have a junior or sophomore, make sure to bookmark this page or print and save this article for future reference.
Also, if you need more assistance with college planning, you can check out some of my other helpful articles and resources below.
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