college list on sticky note

by Shannon Vasconcelos, former financial aid officer at Tufts University

In order to access financial aid for college, you can list up to 10 schools on your FAFSA (if you’re applying to more than 10 colleges, read our post How to Apply to More than 10 Schools on the FAFSA) to receive your family’s financial information. Upon receipt of your complete financial aid application, those colleges’ financial aid offices will determine your eligibility for any applicable federal, state, and institutional aid programs.

We are often asked if there is a particular order in which order a student should list colleges on the FAFSA in order to maximize financial aid or chances of admission. The good news for students is that, in most cases, it makes absolutely no difference in what order you list your schools: listing from first choice to last, in alphabetical order, or by favorite school color will not change your admissions or financial aid outcomes in any way.

A number of years ago, this was not necessarily the case. Colleges could see the other colleges listed on your form—and their place on your list—and it came to light that some colleges were drawing inferences from this information that affected some admissions decisions. A high placement was seen as a sign of demonstrated interest in the college and a low placement demonstrated a lack of interest (whether or not this was true for any individual student). In general, colleges like to accept students they expect will actually enroll, and the inferences drawn from the FAFSA order sometimes affected admissions outcomes.

Happily, in response to this information about how FAFSA order was being used by some colleges, the Department of Education removed the ability of colleges to see either their placement or the other colleges listed on your FAFSA starting with the 2016/17 application cycle. You will still see rumors floating around the internet about the FAFSA order being used in nefarious ways, but this information is very outdated. Colleges today have no ability to see other colleges listed on your FAFSA, nor the order in which they are listed.

Therefore, it usually makes absolutely no difference how you list schools on your FAFSA. There are, however, a handful of states where the order in which you list colleges could make a difference for state financial aid purposes:

In these states, they may, by default, assume that you are attending the first of the eligible in-state colleges on your list, or one of the two top listed colleges, until you notify them otherwise. For administrative ease, therefore, you may wish to list the in-state college you feel you are most likely to attend first on your FAFSA. That will minimize the chances of you having to make any updates later. If your state aid agency, however, does make an incorrect assumption about what college you will attend, there is generally a process by which you can update them about your school choice. Your college choice is not, therefore, set in stone by the order in which you list schools on the FAFSA, even in these states that consider the order up front. Visit studentaid.gov to see whether or not your FAFSA school order matters in your state, and, if so, the preferred process for updating your state agency about school choice. And get more details about your state aid programs at nasfaa.org.

If you don’t live in one of the above states, the order in which you list colleges on the FAFSA makes no difference whatsoever—for admissions or financial aid purposes. If you live in one of the above states, list your in-state schools first, and then don’t stress! If you qualify for state aid, you can always change your assumed college choice later.

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Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University. To learn more about Shannon, be sure to read her bio on getintocollege.com.