FAFSA help: How to avoid mistakes

by Marketing & Communications,

  • Stack of money

Just thinking about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) might prompt a sense of dread, a sudden urge to flee or remind you of everything else you need to do first, like feed the turtle. 

But the application is key to potentially free money, and who doesn’t want that? 

The U.S. Department of Education estimates you can lose thousands of dollars, whether in the form of grants, scholarships or financial aid by not completing the application. It’s worth the time and effort. 

Apply ASAP. The FAFSA is available on Oct. 1 ahead of each school year. The deadline is June 30. Some financial aid is given on a first-come, first-served basis and could run out of money early. 

Use helpful hints. Clicking on the “Help and Hints” instructions will answer all of your FAFSA questions — you just need to take the time to do it, said Willamette’s Director of Financial Aid Patty Hoban

Start by creating a FSA ID. Complete this step before filling out the FAFSA to prevent application delays or errors down the road. 

The FSA ID represents your legal signature that allows you to sign your application electronically. If you’re a dependent student, you and one of your parents needs to create separate IDs. Both the parent and student need to sign the FAFSA, says Hoban.  

Once you create it, store it in a safe place. You’ll use it again when you apply for FAFSA next year. 

Have FAFSA documents ready. It will be helpful to have these documents and numbers available when you’re filling out the FAFSA (from studentaid.gov): 

If you are a dependent student: 

  • Driver’s license number
  • Social Security cards for you and one of your parents 
  • Alien Registration number if you’re not a U.S. citizen
  • Tax return or the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT). 

Tax info needed from you, spouse (if married) and parents if you are dependent: 

  • IRS W-2, IRS 1040
  • Foreign tax return: IRS 1040NR or IRS 1040NR-EZ
  • Tax returns for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia or Palau 

Use the IRS DRT if you can. The DRT automatically transfers your tax information into the FAFSA form. 

Not everyone can use the DRT. Manually enter tax information if the following applies to you: 

  • If your or your parent is married, and either you or your parent — or his/her spouse — filed as “married filing separately” or “head of household.”
  • Your parents’ marital status is “unmarried and both legal parents living together.” 
  • Either the student or parent filed a Puerto Rican, foreign tax return, or an IRS Form 1040-NR or 1040NR-EZ. 

Report untaxed income. Read through the questions carefully and report any amount of untaxed income you have received, such as child support, annual IRA contributions, interest income and veterans non-education benefits. Hoban advises using the “Help and Hints” instructions and refer to your tax return and W-2’s. Don’t assume you don’t have any untaxed income. 

Be clear on assets. You will be asked to provide information on cash, savings and checking account balances, stocks, bonds and others. This can be a little confusing, so Hoban states the following: 

DO NOT include information on:

  • the home you live in
  • the farm you live on
  • the business you own if it has less than 100 full-time employees 
  • life insurance, retirement plans (pension funds, annuities, non education IRAS, Keogh plans, etc.) 

DO include info on: 

  • 529 college savings plans (check the FAFSA instructions) 

Other things to anticipate  

Hoban reviews dozens of applications a year and tends to come across the same mistakes. Here are her suggestions: 

Make sure the school year is correct. The 2020-21 FAFSA, for instance, is for fall 2020. 

Triple check the spelling of your name, SSN, date of birth information for you and any parent (sounds obvious, but it’s easy to mess up.) This information has to match the Social Security card. Any inconsistencies could cause delays and possibly a loss of funding, said Hoban. 

Reporting parent information. The definition FAFSA uses for “parent” is not intuitive for everyone. 

  • If your parents are divorced, separated or remarried, the parent listed on your FAFSA should be the one who you lived with the most over the previous year, Hoban said. 
  • If you lived with each parent equally, then list the parent who provided the most financial support. 
  • If the parent reporting the information is remarried, then the new spouse’s income and assets should also be reported on the form. 

Don't double up on income. Don’t report a parent’s income in both the “parent income” section and the “student income” section. 

“If you accidentally report earning $50,000 a year as a student, you can look like you don’t quality for aid at all,” Hoban said. A small school like Willamette can double-check applications for errors like that, but bigger schools may not. 


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