The senior year of high school is a busy time for students and their parents, with college applications and campus visits, plus homework and extracurriculars.
But with everything students and parents have going on, there’s one thing neither of you can afford to neglect: filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Otherwise known as the FAFSA, this form is necessary for students attending college who want to be considered for federal grants, loans and work-study programs.
The FAFSA application for 2016-17 opened on Jan. 1. To be eligible for the most aid, you should fill it out as early as possible — even before you find out which schools accept you. Here are five hacks to save you time:
1. Create your FSA ID before you start.
You’ll need a Federal Student Aid ID — a fancy term for a username and password — to submit your FAFSA online. If you’re a dependent student, your parent will need one too. You can both create one on the Federal Student Aid website.
The FSA ID replaced the FSA PIN in May 2015. Both serve the same purpose, but the FSA ID is designed to be more secure. If you have an FSA PIN from filling out the FAFSA previously, creating your FSA ID will be quick because you can transfer your personal information from the PIN to the ID and begin using your FSA ID immediately.
If you don’t have an FSA PIN already, you’ll have to start from scratch. Creating the ID should take only about 15 minutes, says Amy Jarecki, associate director of financial aid and scholarships at Indiana University East. But you’ll have to wait one to three days for the Social Security Administration to verify your ID before you can make changes to your FAFSA or use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (more on this below).
2. Gather your personal information and financial documents.
The fastest way to get through the FAFSA is by gathering the information you need before you start, including these important documents for students and parents:
- Social Security card
- Driver’s license
- 2015 tax returns (your parents can use their 2014 tax returns as an estimate if they haven’t filed their 2015 taxes yet).
- 2015 W-2 forms
- 2015 untaxed income records
- Current bank statements
For an exhaustive list, check out this FAFSA checklist.
3. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool if possible.
The IRS Data Retrieval Tool lets you transfer information from your tax returns directly to your FAFSA. If you can use it, it’ll save you time, prevent mistakes and lower your chances of being selected for the tedious FAFSA verification process, which increases the time it takes to get your financial aid award.
Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool “doesn’t completely keep you immune from the verification, but it can help,” Jarecki says.
But timing can be tricky with the tool. The FAFSA opened on Jan. 1, and the sooner you fill it out, the more likely you are to receive the most aid. But the IRS Data Retrieval Tool isn’t available until early February, and you can’t use it until at least two weeks after you file your 2015 taxes. Taxes for 2015 aren’t due until April 18. So students and parents have two options:
- If you can file your 2015 taxes early, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to fill out the FAFSA in February. However, be mindful of the FAFSA deadlines for your state and the schools you’re applying to. Deadlines for each state and institution vary and can be as early as January or February.
- If your state or school has an early FAFSA deadline, or you can’t file 2015 taxes early, fill out the FAFSA and use your 2014 taxes to estimate. Then, when you file your 2015 taxes, update your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.
Nerd note: Starting in 2016, the FAFSA will open three months earlier, and parents and students will be able to use their tax information from the previous year to fill it out. For example, for the 2017-18 school year, the FAFSA will open in October 2016 instead of January 2017, and parents can use their 2015 tax information instead of their 2016 information. This will allow more students and parents to use the IRS Data Retrieval tool when filling out the FAFSA. Here is more information on FAFSA changes for 2017-18.
4. Take advantage of free help.
If you’re overwhelmed or confused by the FAFSA, you don’t have to do it alone. Here are some places you can find help for free:
College Goal Sunday: Sponsored by the National College Access Network, this nationwide network of events helps students complete the FAFSA live, in person. Look up a location near you on the organization’s website.
NerdWallet FAFSA Guide: We have a resource that walks you through the FAFSA question by question. It’s especially useful for students with unusual circumstances, including nontraditional families or immigration issues.
5. Check for mistakes before you submit.
It may be tempting to submit the FAFSA as soon as you complete it, but check it for errors and missed questions first — it’ll save you time in the long run. Your FAFSA could be rejected if there’s a mistake, and you’ll have to correct it before you can receive your aid offer. Errors or missed questions also increase your chances of being selected for verification, which involves additional paperwork.
Make sure all the numbers you enter on the FAFSA are correct, and spell your name exactly as it appears on your Social Security card.
“If your name doesn’t match up, it can delay the whole process,” says Lauren Heatherly, assistant director of outreach for Ohio State University’s Student Financial Aid office. “That accuracy is paramount to us being able to process the FAFSA.”
Image via iStock.