applying for financial aid: a parent's perspective

October started off just as busy as September! As my son works feverishly on both his college essay and Common Application, I am focusing my efforts on the financial application process. From one parent to another, I truly believe that this is a critically important step to take. If you want to tap into available sources of funding for college, then it is essential to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The financial aid application process can seem daunting, but planning for educational expenses is a necessary endeavor, so time to get going!

Perhaps you’ve heard horror stories from other families who have tried to navigate the FAFSA and now you’re afraid to begin the process. Rest assured! You do not need to throw your arms up in the air and surrender, as the FAFSA really isn’t that bad! I can attest to this, as I completed the FAFSA over the weekend and wanted to share some tips on how to tackle this all-important form.

The FAFSA is required at EVERY college in the United States that administers federal financial aid programs. Fortunately, over the years, the FAFSA has become much simpler to file as new tools have been implemented to make the process more streamlined and easier to navigate. Before you jump into completing the FAFSA, consider signing up for your FSA ID, which is necessary if you wish to electronically sign the FAFSA (a huge timesaver!). Both student and parent will need to visit fsaid.ed.gov to register for their own FSA IDs (user names and passwords), which will allow both parties to access all of the Department of Education’s student aid systems throughout the years. After acquiring your FSA ID, you’ll be ready to complete the FAFSA by visiting fafsa.ed.gov.

A little preparation goes a long way when getting ready to file the FAFSA! Gather the required information in advance so that you don’t have to search for it while you’re in the middle of the process. This information will be helpful to you when you sit down to complete the FAFSA:

  • FSA IDs for both the student and the parent
  • Social Security numbers and birthdates
  • W-2 Forms and/or Records of Income Earned in 2015 (Taxed and Untaxed Sources)
  • 2015 Income Tax Return (Parent and Student, if completed)
  • Current bank and investment statements
  • Records of payments made to others, if applicable
  • Current business and farm records, if applicable
  • List of colleges your child intends to apply to

As soon as you begin the FAFSA, you will move through the questions one by one. Be sure to look at the left hand side of the page, as it will remind you what section of the FAFSA you are in, like “PARENT INFORMATION” or “STUDENT INCOME,” so that you answer the questions correctly. One cool thing about the FAFSA is that on each page there is a “Help and Hints” section located towards the right side of the page. For each question you are completing, there will be helpful information displayed related to how best to answer the question. In addition, if the hints don’t help, click the help link at the bottom of each page so you can benefit from the support of the FAFSA customer support team. Another neat tool is the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which allows a parent to connect the IRS and FAFSA sites, ultimately allowing the parent to move over their 2015 tax form data and upload it into their FAFSA, saving time and reducing the chance of errors.

Please be sure to list the colleges that your child intends to apply to. Double check the schools’ names and corresponding school codes to ensure that each intended college will receive your FAFSA information by the college’s financial aid application deadline. There is space to list up to ten colleges on the FAFSA initially. If your child is planning to apply to more than ten schools, as soon as the initial FAFSA is processed, you can log back into the FAFSA and add additional colleges.

If you need financial aid for college, then completing the FAFSA is the first step you should take. The FAFSA is your gateway to federal grants, federal low-interest student loans, the federal work-study program, and the majority of state and institutional financial aid programs. Just carve out an hour of time, follow the above tips, use the available resources to get help should you need it, and your FAFSA experience should go very smoothly! I found the process to be very straight-forward and now it’s behind me! I encourage you to complete the FAFSA as early as possible so that you meet any and all priority filing deadlines.

Check back for my next blog post which will focus on an additional financial aid application, the CSS Profile Form.

College-App-Prep-101-CTA

Written by Jan Combs
Jan Combs is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, Jan was Director of Financial Aid at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Boston University.