There are two big changes with FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) that families must be aware of . . .

  • Families can now start applying for financial aid through FAFSA beginning October 1, instead of waiting until January.
  • Families can now use prior-prior year tax returns instead of prior year’s. For example, if a family submits their FAFSA application in November 2016, they can include 2015 tax year statements for consideration.

These FAFSA changes are great news because the financial aid process is better aligned with the college application process.

There are more and more students who apply during early application deadlines. For example, Georgia Tech’s Early Action application deadline is October 15 and numerous other colleges, such as MIT, The Ohio State University and Purdue have Early Action Deadlines of November 1. Now that the FAFSA application will be open sooner it means that when colleges release their decisions in mid-December, they may also have enough financial information to make a preliminary decision about any financial aid awards. This may be a sigh of relief for families who are particularly concerned about the financial support that they may receive in order to make college affordable.

Admittedly, when I first filled out the FAFSA for my oldest son, it felt a bit overwhelming. I was concerned about “all the paperwork” and financial disclosure. Completing the FAFSA was so much easier than I expected. So, if you are completing the FAFSA for the first time, I encourage you to 1) wrap your ahead around the fact that you can get through it, then 2) set aside an hour when you can devote time to completing the FAFSA form.

To feel less daunted by the whole financial aid process, you may follow these 5 tips to save time:

1. Create your FSA ID

Prior to even starting the FAFSA, you must create a Federal Student Aid ID. This is simply a username and password to fill out the form and update the information in later years. Keep in mind that the student will have their own FSA ID and the parent will also have their own FSA ID.

Please, please remember to write your usernames and passwords to keep in a safe place. (I even took a photo of mine to keep in my phone.)

2. Start the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov

Use your FSA ID to begin applying for financial aid through FAFSA. The FAFSA form has about 100 questions. And no worries, you do not have to fill out the form in one sitting. You can start, stop and return at a later time. Keep in mind though that the information is kept in progress up to 45 days.

3. Add FAFSA deadlines to your calendar

Yes, I’m a major fan of keeping a visible calendar as well as mobile calendar for your teen to stay accountable. Add state and college-specific deadlines to be sure. (The federal deadline is typically in the summer following the academic year so I wouldn’t worry about that one.) Focus on and plan to submit your FAFSA prior to the earliest deadline.

Most financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so apply as early as possible.

4. Gather documents

The student and parent/guardian will need these documents at least to complete the FAFSA:

  • Social security numbers
  • Alien registration number (if not a US citizen)
  • Most recent federal income tax returns, W-2 forms and records of any untaxed income.
  • Bank statements
  • Investment records

Having these documents handy when you’re completing the FAFSA will save you time and give you more peace of mind, for sure.

5. Use the IRS Data Retrieval tool

To speed up the FAFSA application process, you may transfer your federal tax return information directly into your FAFSA with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Within the financial information section, you may click “Link to IRS” to prefill your information. When I tried this first time, none of my information was retrieved. I did, however, receive a notification later from the university where my son would attend stating that my financial aid report would not be finalized until this financial information was verified through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

As I completed the FAFSA, there were checks along the way to avoid mistakes and numerous email notices to keep me on track.

I wish you all the best in this process and please post any questions you have.

Author: Pamela E

Dr. Pamela has helped thousands of teens attend the college of their choice. She brings her 25 years experience in education to assist families, schools, and employers with college selection, admissions, financial aid, and more. Dr. Pamela holds a PhD from Stanford School of Education, and an MBA from Dartmouth.

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