12 Common FAFSA Mistakes

1. Not Completing the FAFSA

There are all kinds of reason people do not complete the FAFSA: "The FAFSA is too hard," "It takes too long to complete," "I never qualify anyway, so why does it matter?" It does matter. The FAFSA is not just the application for federal grants such as the Pell Grant. It's also the application for work-study funds, low-interest federal student loans, and even scholarships and grants offered by your state, school, or private organization. If you don't complete the FAFSA, you could lose out on thousands of dollars to help you pay for college. The FAFSA takes a little time 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.

2. Not Using the Correct Website

The official FAFSA website is fafsa.gov. You never have to pay to complete the FAFSA. If you're asked for credit card information, you're not on the official government site.

3. Not Getting an FSA ID Ahead of Time

An FSA ID is a username and password that you must use to log in to certain US Department of Education (ED) websites, including fafsa.gov. You AND your parent, if you're considered a dependent student, will each need your own, separate FSA IDs if you each want to sign your FAFSA online.

Why is it so important to get an FSA ID early? Well, once you register for an FSA ID, you may need to wait up to three days before you can use it to sign your FAFSA. If you don't want your FAFSA to be delayed, create an FSA ID now (go to fsaid.ed.gov). If you're a dependent student, have your parent create an FSA ID too.

4. Waiting to Fill Out the FAFSA

If you want to get the most financial aid possible, fill out the FAFSA ASAP after October 1. Some financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis and some states and colleges run out of money early, so even if your deadlines aren't for a while, get your FAFSA done ASAP. Now that you're required to use earlier tax information (prior-prior year) to complete the FAFSA, you have no excuse to wait.

5. Not Filing by the Deadline

You should fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can, but you should DEFINITELY fill it out before your earliest FAFSA deadline. Each state and school sets its own deadline. To maximize the amount of your financial aid, fill out your FAFSA (and any other financial aid applications that may be required by your state or school) by your earliest deadline, if not sooner.

6. Not Using Your FSA ID to Start the FAFSA

When you go to log in to fafsa.gov, you will be given the option to "Enter your (the student's) FSA ID" OR "Enter the student's information." If you are the student, we highly recommend choosing the first option if you can. If you log in with your FSA ID, a lot of your information (name, Social Security number, date of birth, etc) will be automatically loaded into your application. This will prevent you from running into a common error that occurs when your verified FSA ID information doesn't match the information on your FAFSA. Additionally, you won't have to provide your FSA ID again to transfer your information from the IRS or to sign your FAFSA electronically.

7. Not Reading Definitions Carefully

When it comes to completing the FAFSA, you want to read each definition and question carefully because sometimes how the FAFSA wants you to answer certain questions is not how you'd intuitively answer the question.

Here are some items that have very specific (but not intuitive) definitions according to the FAFSA:

* 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.

* Parent: The FAFSA has very specific guidelines for which parent(s) need to be reported on the FAFSA (and it has nothing to do with who claims you on their taxes). Go to https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/filling-out/parent-info for details.

* 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, especially when the student doesn't physically live with the parent.

* Number of family members in college: Enter the number of people in your household who will attend college at the same time you attend college. Don't forget to include yourself. Do not include your parents in this number. This number should never be greater than your number of family members.

8. Inputting Incorrect Information

Here are some examples of common errors seen on the FAFSA:

* Confusing parent and student information: There are many parents out there who fill out the FAFSA for their child, but remember, the FAFSA is the student's application. When the FAFSA says "you" or "your", it's referring to the student, so make sure to enter your (the student's) information. If it is asking for your parent's information, it will specify that in the question.

* Entering the wrong name: 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 your Social Security card. No nicknames.

* Entering the wrong social security number (SSN): When the FAFSA is processed, your Social Security number is cross-checked with the Social Security Administration. To avoid delays in processing your application, triple-check that you have entered the correct SSN.

* Amount of your income tax: Here, it is asking for your assessed income tax liability, not the amount of income tax withheld, and not your adjusted gross income (AGI).  This can be complicated. To make it simple, transfer your tax info into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. 

9. Not Reporting Parent Information

Even if you fully support yourself, pay your own bills, and 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. If you are considered a dependent student and don't provide parent information, your FAFSA may not be processed, you may not receive an EFC, and/or you may only qualify for unsubsidized loans.

10. Listing Only One College

Two-thirds of pre-college FAFSA applicants list only one college on their applications. Unless you are only applying to one college or already know where you're going to school, this is a mistake. Colleges can't see the other schools you've added, so you should add ANY college you are considering to your FAFSA, even if you aren't sure whether you'll apply or be accepted. You can add up to 10 schools at a time. If you're applying to more than 10 schools, you can follow these steps after you have initially submitted your FAFSA application to add the additional schools:

- Login to your FAFSA. You will see the option to "Make FAFSA Corrections." Remove some of the colleges listed on your FAFSA, add the additional school codes, and submit the corrections for processing.

- Give the additional colleges your SSN, name, and the Data Release Number (DRN) from your Student Aid Report (SAR) so that they can add their school code to your FAFSA and receive an electronic copy of your SAR.

- Call the Federal Student Aid Information Center and have them add the colleges for you. When you call, you must provide the DRN from your SAR or confirmation page. Refer to the Help page on the FAFSA website for contact information.

TIP: It doesn't hurt your application to add more schools. In fact, you don't even have to remove schools you later decide not to apply to. If you don't end up applying or getting accepted to a school, the school can just disregard your FAFSA, but you can remove schools at any time to make room for new schools.

11. Not Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

For many, the most difficult part about filling out the FAFSA is entering the financial information. But now, thanks to a partnership with the IRS, students and parents who are eligible can automatically transfer the necessary tax information into the FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This year, the tool will be available on the same day as the FAFSA launches (you used to have to wait until February).

Since the FAFSA is requiring earlier tax information, you will have already filed your taxes by the time you start the FAFSA. This means you can transfer your tax info right away and you won't need to go back in and update your FAFSA later.

12. Not Signing the FAFSA

So many students answer every single question that is asked, but fail to actually sign the FAFSA with their FSA ID and submit it. This happens for many reasons - maybe you forgot your FSA ID or your parent didn't sign with the parent FSA ID - so the FAFSA is left incomplete.