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5 Tips for Filling Out the FAFSA

Helpful advice for dealing with college financial aid paperwork


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So you've logged on to the FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid - web site and opened an account. Now what? Here are five tips to help you navigate the bureaucratic-filled evening ahead of you:

  1. PINs and Paperwork: Make sure you've done the necessary prep work before you begin the FAFSA, that you've acquired personal ID numbers for you and your child, taken care of the Selective Service registration requirement, and assembled all your tax documents and other paperwork. (Click here for a list of the specific paperwork required.) Now, write down your FAFSA user name and password, and stash it in the same safe place you jotted your PINs, because you'll need this information again next year and the year after that.

  2. Independent or Not: Next, determine your child's dependency. If your child was born in 1985 or earlier, is married, working on a graduate degree, or is or has ever been a member of the Armed Forces, the federal government considers him to be independent. You can't claim him as a dependent on your tax forms, and your finances won't figure into this application, so you will not fill out any parental paperwork. Still a dependent? Then read on...

  3. You or Not You: When filling out these forms, it's helpful to remember that "you" is not you. It's your kid. The FAFSA is an application from your child to the federal government for student aid. But the reality is, you’re probably the one filling it out (perhaps with your son or daughter by your side so you can growl at him occasionally). So when the paperwork asks a question about "you," it means your child. "Your parents" is you. Doesn’t sound like that would be confusing, but somehow, it always is.

  4. Free Help: The FAFSA forms walk you through the process, prompting you for data from your W2 forms or your child's college savings. But there's help, if you find yourself getting confused or frustrated. The state of California, for example, hosts hundreds of free "Cash for College" workshops from early January through mid-March, and many high schools and community colleges elsewhere host free financial aid workshops. They set up computer banks and provide roving, often bilingual assistants who will sit by your side and help you fill out the forms. Don't be shy. Call your child's high school or college and ask for help.

  5. Printed Deadlines: Ignore the FAFSA's published deadline - it refers to the last day it will accept applications but trust me, the money will be gone long before that. Instead, pay attention to "priority deadlines" and state deadlines, which can vary dramatically. In 2009, for example, Connecticut's was Feb. 15, and Louisiana July 1. Frankly, you should be aiming for a mid-February to early March submission, no matter how much more time an agency gives you. The early applicant gets the cash.
So, you've filled out the forms and hit submit. Click here to find out what happens next.
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