Getting the Most Out of College Financial Aid

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By: Molly Greenberg

In The Capital: The view from inside DC

FAFSA: the five-letter acronym standing for Free Application for Federal Student Aid that leaves families across the country with intolerable, taxing headaches (see what I did there?) and lends for arguments about the meanings of what normally would appear to be simplistic words.

While the FAFSA deadline for the 2013-2014 academic year isn’t until June 30, 2014, D.C.’s deadline is on April 30, 2013 for priority consideration, a date that will slowly but surely creep up on you. So, rather than wait until last minute and lose out on receiving the maximum amount of financial aid you are eligible for, take the time now to sort through the particulars and file for your chance at a portion of the $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds awarded each year.

To help you navigate your way through what has best been described as the Grinch of all things financial aid-related, the Cookie Monster who just refuses to let you have the highly enticing financial goods, here are a couple of must read tips for filling out the FAFSA. Don’t forget to check out the funny FAFSA memes towards the bottom of the article to help you laugh your way through the application process too!

9 Great Tips to Help You Conquer Your FAFSA Application in Record Time

  • Check Everything Not Once, Not Twice, but at the Very Least Five Times

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but this is very sound advice. Nothing will kill a FAFSA faster than errors or omissions so being overly careful is certainly not a bad idea. One missing signature, spelling mistake, even a comma afforded to the wrong spot could mean the different between you receiving $5,000 in financial aid and $50,000. So take the time to check everything and then once you have, hand it off to your parents, your siblings, your cousins, however many people you believe it will take to ensure that your application is spotless. It’s worth it.

Here’s one of the most common mistakes people make when filling out the FAFSA: “I”, “You”, or “Your”, etc. refers to the student, not the parent!

  • Think Taxes and Think Fast

I know, I know we are no where near close to tax deadlines, but in order to complete the FAFSA application you must have access to your tax returns.

For those of you that don’t complete your tax returns in time, don’t fret. You can use last year’s information as a reference to estimate what earnings you may have, just remember to be realistic about your income and expenses. Your FAFSA can always be updated over time as well.

  • Finish the FAFSA Sooner Rather Than Later

While the D.C. FAFSA deadline isn’t until May 31, 2013 (April 30, 2013 for priority consideration), it’s true what they say: The faster you finish your FAFSA the more likely you’ll receive financial aid. Some financial aid is allotted on a first come, first served basis (yes, that’s not a myth), so get in your FAFSA as early as humanly possible. My advice, file as soon after January 1 as possible to ensure you receive the maximum amount of financial aid you are eligible for.

However, there is an added benefit for waiting until February. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which allows students and parents to access the IRS tax return information needed to complete the FAFSA and transfer the data directly into their FAFSA from the IRS website, will launch in early February. It will end up saving you and your family a substantial amount of time, making your life a little bit easier.

  • Remember: the Forms Are Color Coded for a Reason

It seems pretty ridiculous to make this a tip, but many seem to forget which color stands represents which person, but I suppose that makes sense as each year the color of the FAFSA changes. This year, student-related items are in green on the paper FAFSA and blue online. Items for parent(s) are all in purple.

  • Don’t Believe the Many, Many Myths About the FAFSA

Ever think, “I won’t qualify for aid, my family makes too much money” or “only smart students with straight A’s actually receive financial aid,” well, most likely you’re wrong. Read “Myths About Financial Aid” and your worries will be thrown out the door. More likely than not, if completed correctly, you will receive financial aid in some way, shape, or form.

  • 401(k) Plans Should NOT be Included

It’s awesome that you have a 401(k) to boast about and all, but the FAFSA is not the place you should be sharing that sort of information. The FAFSA doesn’t ask for it, so just refrain from embellishing facts about your retirement assets (that includes your 403(b) plans as well. If you choose to add those in, you may not be afforded as much or any financial aid.

  • Unusual Family Information Should be Shared

It sounds strange, but this is important and could even be categorized as integral. With the economic decline we saw many families go through difficult financial situations proving that while you may have a steady income right now, that could change very, very quickly. Make sure to share that on your FAFSA. For example, if your father was in a car accident and was out of work for three months or so, that’s information you should be stating on your FAFSA. How about a decline in yearly income? Include that as well. And the good things, like a bonus not normally afforded on a year-to-year basis? That’s important as well, just make sure to mention that this is not a normal occurrence.

  • DEADLINES, DEADLINES, DEADLINES

Make sure you know what they are, when they are, to the hour when offices close. A date can slip your mind in the matter of seconds so ensure that you have deadlines noted on your Google calendar, on a paper calendar tacked to your wall, set as alarms on your phone, etc. Whatever you can do to help you remind you, the better.

Here are some times to remember: Deadlines expire at midnight Central Standard Time and fully completed applications will be accepted up to one hour before closing.

The FAFSA is the only way you can gain access to more than $150 billion available in federal student aid, so take advantage of this U.S. Department of Education afforded opportunity and act now. It’s free, only takes around 30 minutes to complete and could truly change your life.

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