11 Common FAFSA Mistakes That Can Cost You Money

Carol Katarsky Updated on August 25, 2021

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, isn’t difficult to fill out, but certain mistakes or errors in your information could hurt your eligibility for financial aid. 

Here are 11 mistakes to avoid. 

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1. Not filling out the FAFSA

Before you throw all your college savings at the first year's tuition, fill out the FAFSA! Many students and their families assume their income is too high to be eligible for most need-based aid, so they don't bother with the form. 

But FAFSA information is used for lots of different kinds of financial aid. If you don't file the FAFSA , you could lose out on a chance to snag federal grants, state grants, or need-based scholarships from your college, as well as qualifying for student loans. 

In fact, financial aid administrators tell us that failing to fill out the FAFSA is the #1 mistake you can make when applying for college. 

See also: How Does FAFSA Work?

2. Forgetting your School Code

The FAFSA form provides your financial information to schools, but it can’t do so if you haven’t named the schools you're considering. Include all the schools you're applying to, up to the ten school limit. You can look up the codes for your schools here

If you're applying to any in-state public schools list them first — it can improve your odds of getting certain state grants. If your school choices change after you fill out the form, you can simply log back in to add or delete schools.

3. Closing the confirmation page before reading it

The FAFSA is long, and chances are you'll be happy to be done with it. Just make sure you're really done before you close the screen.

Read the confirmation page for any additional information you may need, such as scholarships available and links for applying for state-based aid. For example, the New York state application for its state schools' Tuition Assistance Program grant is linked to on the confirmation page. Forgetting to click on that and finish the application could cost a family more than  $5,000.

See also: What Do You Need to Fill Out the FAFSA?

4. Ending your financial aid search with the FAFSA

Here are three of the best things you can do to pay for college while incurring the least amount of debt:

  1. First, speak with your high school counselors. They can tell you about local and national scholarships you might qualify for.
  2. Second, speak to college financial aid counselors at the schools you're applying to. They can share info regarding scholarships specific to majors or even your talents.
  3. Look for scholarships on your own. There are so many out there that you can't assume your high school or college will know about all the scholarships that you may eligible for. Check out the Nitro scholarship database to get started. 

See also: Not a Hemingway? Go for These Scholarships Without Essays

5. Not filling out special circumstances forms

Family financial situations change. If your or your family's income has decreased dramatically since the tax year reported on the FAFSA, or if you've dealt with a serious illness or death in the family since then, you’ll want to tell the school you've chosen.

To do this, detail your situation in a special circumstances form, available from the institution. This may help open up need-based aid previously unavailable to the student.

See also: Could You Be Eligible for More Financial Aid Because of the Pandemic?

6. Filing the FAFSA too late

Some aid is dispersed on a first-come, first-serve basis. The longer you wait, the less likely you'll be to get a slice of the aid pie.

Be sure to fill out the FAFSA as close to October 1 as you can.

See also: FAFSA Due Dates To Put On Your Calendar Right Now

7. Including your parent's income when you don't have to

The difference between filing the FAFSA as a dependent or an independent student is big — and can have a significant impact on your aid package.  When you file as a dependent, your FAFSA must include not only your own income, but the income of your parents. For need-based aid, this could mean the difference between qualifying or not. 

It's not just independent students who should double check. Dependent students whose parents are divorced won't need to declare both incomes. Likewise, unless you've been legally adopted, you would not need to declare the income of a grandparent or other guardian. Make sure to carefully read the rules before you submit your FAFSA.

See also: 4 FAFSA Tips For Students with Divorced Parents

8. Overstating your previous studies

Some students misunderstand a FAFSA question that asks if you have a bachelor's degree. If you've taken classes but not yet graduated, you should answer "no"  to this question.

Undergraduate students who answer this question incorrectly by selecting "yes" will disqualify themselves from most aid. Only select "yes" if you've received your degree or if you are applying for aid as a graduate student.

9. Not including other students in your household

Is your sibling or another relative your parents help support also attending school? (The one exception: If your parent is attending school.) Make sure to include that information in Question #96

If your household's income is supporting more than one student, the federal government will take that into account when deciding how much is a reasonable expected financial contribution, or EFC, for your family.

10. Using the wrong income 

Overstating or understating your household income can cause headaches down the road. If you note too much for your income, for example, by using the wrong income from your tax return, you could unnecessarily disqualify yourself for some types of aid. Likewise, declaring certain assets, such as retirement accounts or homes, as investments can artificially boost your EFC and reduce your eligibility for aid.                                                       

11. Forgetting to sign your FAFSA

After you've completed all of the questions, you still need to officially sign your FAFSA in order to submit it to the Department of Education. To do so, you'll need a Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID. Sometimes it can take a few days to set up your ID, so don't wait until the last minute to get started. 

In general, with the FAFSA, it's important to take your time, read as much as you can, and be 100% sure about your answers before you submit your form.

Check out our step-by-step guide to filling out the FAFSA to make the process easier. 

Published in: FAFSA

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky

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