According to the Department of Education, about 30% of all FAFSAs (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) were selected for verification, a process intended to help correct common errors. You really want to avoid these errors: of course, it can prevent you from receiving financial aid, but it can cost you time and energy even if they give you a chance to fix your application. The first thing you can do to ensure no errors is to get started early (anytime after Jan.1). Secondly, try to use the online version of the FAFSA. This online application has a built-in “edit checks” that will help prevent common errors. If you do things the old fashioned way, using the printed version, be sure to proofread your application before submitting it – preferably with someone who can help you verify that you’re not making errors.
The common mistakes are:
1. Leaving a field blank
This is usually only a problem with printed application (the online version should catch it and remind you to fill it in), but you’d be surprised how often this happens. If the answer is zero, then for goodness sake, write zero!
2. Careless reading and/or inputting incorrectly
This a big whammy. If the form asks the amount of your income tax and you type in your income, everything is going to be thrown off. Another mistake is reading the “you” as your parents or your spouse. Every “you” on FAFSA is referring to you, the student. READ carefully!
3. Forgetting to sign the application
If you are filing as a dependent, remember both you and your parents must sign the form. If filing online, be sure to enter your PIN number in lieu of signature. If filing online you may use the check your status option immediately after submitting; if you failed to sign, the system will warn you right away.
5. Not being prepared
Forgetting to report all sources of untaxed income comes up quite often. For example, for FAFSA purposes, if you contribute to a 401k or any other pre-tax retirement account, you must add back any contributions in the previous year to your income.
Another reminder, you will need your parents’ financial information if you are indeed a dependent. Of course, you will need your tax information too. Estimating is acceptable, but having your documents with you may gain you the best results.
6. Waiting too long to submit
A common mistake is waiting to get all you paperwork together in one place, file your taxes and then waiting for some spare time to sit down and do the task. Many people might not be aware that some money is on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is imperative to file as early as possible. Remember to finish the application (if you started it one week, and come back to it the next), and also remember this application can be filled out as early as January 1. And don’t forget, you are filling out the application for the following school year, not the year you may be currently enrolled in.
Biggest piece of advice: don’t rush through the form – that’s how most mistakes happen. According to Nicole Callahan, a media analyst at the Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA takes most people 23 minutes to complete, and (get this) there is help provided throughout the application. Don’t miss out because you think, geez, this is going to take forever! It’s shorter than watching a sitcom on Netflix!