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Unlocking the Secrets of the FAFSA

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a critical step in the financial aid process. This single form is used to award all federal and state aid, and most institutional aid as well. It is not surprising that students and families are less than enthusiastic when it comes time to complete and submit the FAFSA. In fact, many treat the FAFSA like yet another tax for, dreading the annual process and procrastinating until the last minute. A few simple tips can take the agony out of the application process.

1. The FAFSA is NOT a tax form! The IRS is not part of the FAFSA process. The biggest difference between the FAFSA and any tax form is simple. Have you ever seen a tax for that welcomes estimates or guesses? The FAFSA allows, even encourages families and students to use estimates in providing financial information. No one is ever penalized for using estimates. It is much more important to submit the FAFSA at the earliest allowable date than it is important to provide exact financial answers. Many opportunities will be available to provide exact financial data later in the process. Most colleges request a copy of the completed tax return to verify estimates.

2. In the FAFSA process both time and financial aid can be in short supply. The best financial aid is awarded to applicants at the front of the line. In order to be sure you are at the front of the line, it is best to have the FAFSA ready to submit as soon as possible after January 1, the earliest date by which the FAFSA can be sent. The FAFSA can be mailed or sent electronically, via the Internet at

3. One of the most common and costly mistakes made on the FAFSA is when a question that should be completed is left blank. The result will be that the applicant's form will be delayed in processing as the financial aid office has to contact the student and confirm the correct answer. A simple tip can help students and parents avoid this mistake. Any time you are unsure as to whether a question should be answered, just put in a zero. A zero on the FAFSA for says "My answer to this question is nothing, none or not applicable." Remember the same FAFSA is used whether the student is 18 or 80. Some questions just won't apply. When in doubt, just put 'O'.

4. Once the FAFSA is completed, make two copies. One copy should remain with the parents, the other should go with the student when they go to college. These copies are critical as you review the student aid report of errors, prepare special circumstances letters or review packages with the financial aid office. The copy will also help the following year as a new FAFSA is completed. If you are sending the FAFSA electronically, print a cope first for review and reference.

5. About 4 weeks after submitting the FAFSA, applicants receive the Student Aid Report (SAR). This report repeats and the FAFSA data you provided, as entered into the federal FAFSA database. It is very important to check the SAR for any errors and make necessary corrections. At the same time applicants can make changes to any answers provided on the form. If exact financial data is now available it can be substituted for earlier estimates. While the SAR can be returned to the federal processor, most college financial aid offices recommend that corrections and changes be sent directly to the financial aid office. Simply make copies of the SAR for each college, if you are applying to more than one. Sign and date each copy, making each copy as good as the original, and send it to the college financial aid office. This will save considerable time in the application process.