It's no secret that getting the financial aid you need for college only comes at the end of a (very, very) tall and daunting stack of paperwork. Approximately 35 percent of respondents to our College Hopes & Worries survey said that the toughest part of the college admission process is completing applications, including those for financial aid.
There's a lot to keep track of when filling out these applications — income and tax information, available assets, etc. Here are some tips you can use to give yourself a head start when wading through the necessary forms.
The “You" Here is (Almost) Always the Student
While this one may seem obvious, I've found that parents who are helping their students fill out applications too often forget that when a question refers to “you," it's referring to the student and not the parent. The forms may require information to come from a parent, such as anything asking about family income, but in general, the questions are aimed at the student.
If you've asked a parent for help, gently point this out. It may seem like a no-brainer as to how to fill out a blank that asks for the student's name, but there are a lot of blanks, and you might easily forget when asked about something like marital status. You don't want to make the wrong selection there and have to correct it later! Unless a section is clearly marked as asking for parental information, go with what you'd expect and answer on behalf of the student.
Don't Be Afraid to Consider Work-Study
Before you make any decisions about which college to attend, you want your prospective schools to come up with their best offers. Part of that includes placement in a work-study position — a part-time job (usually on-campus) that can help meet your family's remaining need. Many parents are compelled to tell students to forget this as an option so they can place more focus on their schoolwork during the first year of classes. Not so fast!
I always suggest being considered for work-study placement so you can see what type of work is offered before you make any decisions — you can always reject a work placement later, but you can't as easily come back after the fact and ask for one. On your application for financial aid, expressing interest from the start will at least show you what extra income you'd be working with if a position were offered and accepted.
Verify Student Independent Status
Claiming a student as an independent used to be a popular financial aid loophole that many parents took advantage of. However, colleges and the government have cracked down on that, and the rules get more stringent every year. So if you're going the independent route, be prepared to provide extensive documentation to the financial aid offices. Generally, students under the age of 24 cannot claim independence unless they are a ward of the court or if there is some other unusual circumstance.
Make the IRS Work for You
Here's another one you can mention if asking for a parent's help: The FAFSA on the Web (FOTW) has a built-in option called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool that can help you cut out some steps in the process. If your parent has already filed a tax return two years prior to your year of enrollment, then you can have that data automatically transferred from the IRS database to the form. Using this feature can also reduce the chance that your application will be subject to a federal financial aid process known as “Verification," an audit of the information you've submitted.
This process is a bit like being randomly screened at an airport — it doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong, and in fact, at some schools, all applicants are subjected to this extra level of scrutiny. There's no need to worry: this is routine.
In addition to the tips above, here are a few more general things to keep in mind when facing the forms:
- If you have a sibling who is simultaneously applying, you cannot submit the same form. Each student must provide their own form.
- Verify school codes before submitting — specific branches or divisions of a university can have their own codes.
- List schools based on FAFSA deadline — schools with the earliest deadlines should come first!
- Select on-campus housing if you're unsure — living on campus means the cost of attendance will be higher, resulting in more aid. (This is another option that's easier to change your mind on later if you ask for it initially.)
Getting your forms completed properly on the first go-round is one of the best ways to get ahead in the college application process. And having more time with an accurate financial aid offer letter means you'll have more time to decide if you want to make any appeals. The goal is to get whatever financial aid you or your child needs in order to make college dreams a reality. For more tips on how to do just that, check out our book 8 Steps to Paying Less for College.