You never know if you’re eligible for financial aid unless you apply.
By submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, you put yourself in the running for free money, like grants, scholarships and work-study, as well as access to federal student loans.
Before you start your application, here are 10 common financial aid myths to get straight.
Myth 1: Your family earns too much to be eligible for aid
Truth: Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, you may qualify for other aid
Need-based aid isn’t the only financial aid available. If your family’s income is too high, you may not qualify for certain aid programs — namely, federal grants. But if you want to be considered for other aid, including work-study programs and federal student loans, you still need to fill out the FAFSA. Also, you often need to complete the application to qualify for merit scholarships for grades, SAT scores or athletics.
It’s also important to know that the formula isn’t cut-and-dried. “The mathematical formula behind the calculation is based on parent and student income, age of the oldest parent, size of the family, ages of children in the family and several other factors,” says Steven A. Boorstein, a certified financial planner at RockCrest Financial in Franklinville, New Jersey.
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Myth 2: The FAFSA is only for federal aid
Truth: States, universities and some outside scholarship programs also use the FAFSA to determine aid
In addition to federal aid, you may be eligible for need-based and merit-based grants and scholarships from your state, college and private organizations. The FAFSA is often “the first step” to apply for many of these nonfederal aid programs, says Rich Nickel, president of College Success Arizona, an organization that offers scholarships and mentoring to low-income and first-generation college students.
Some schools and groups that offer merit-based scholarships use the FAFSA to understand how their award fits into a student’s full financial aid package, Nickel says. Knowing the full picture allows the school or organization to allocate its scholarships efficiently and avoid awarding too much aid to one student.
Myth 3: You have to apply for financial aid only once
Truth: You have to submit the FAFSA every year
Filling out the FAFSA isn’t a one-time-only event. You need to do it every year that you want to be considered for financial aid.
Even if you filled it out previously and didn’t receive aid, it’s still worth filling out again — especially if your financial situation has changed. You may even qualify for more aid.
“The school wants to know if you get a big raise, and conversely, you want them to know if you lose a job or take a big pay cut, so they’re watching your income and assets year over year to make sure what they’re giving you is still appropriate,” says Charlie Donaldson, president of College Bound Coaching in Newark, Delaware.
Myth 4: It doesn’t matter when you submit THE FAFSA as long as you make the deadline
Truth: The sooner you submit, the more likely you are to get aid
Filling out the FAFSA is a bit like Black Friday; the first people to show up have the best chance of scoring the deals, and those who are late may miss out, Donaldson says.
“When you’re applying for financial aid, you want to be first in line,” he says. “The sooner you can get it in, the better.”
Apply as soon as possible — even before you know where you got accepted or decide which school to attend — because some colleges award aid on a first-come, first-served basis.
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Myth 5: You can fill out the FAFSA anywhere, and you may have to pay a fee
Truth: You should use only the federal government’s FAFSA site and never pay
There is only one official FAFSA form online, and you should complete it at fafsa.ed.gov. Stay away from websites that aren’t official, especially if they request a payment. The FAFSA is a free application, and you should never pay a fee to complete or submit it.
Myth 6: I won’t qualify for aid because I don’t have good grades
Truth: Federal aid isn’t dependent on grades
Grades don’t determine if you get financial aid, but they can be a factor if you will continue receiving money.
“While it is the case that you may not qualify for an institutionally based scholarship if you did not perform well in high school, if you have financial need, you will qualify for need-based aid from federal sources, state sources or college sources,” says Christopher Hanlon, director of financial aid at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.
However, you do need to make decent grades to keep your aid. “Once a student is in college and receiving federal aid, he/she must maintain the minimum satisfactory academic progress guidelines set by his/her college or university to continue receiving federal financial aid,” says Sarah Trausch, assistant director of incoming freshmen and transfer students at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Myth 7: The estimated family contribution number is the exact amount you have to pay
Truth: It’s just an estimate; you may owe less
The accuracy of the Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC, is a big misconception, says Joseph Trentacoste, assistant vice president of enrollment services at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
“Although the EFC is based on dollar figures, it is not the exact amount you will have to pay for college, and it is only used as an index to determine your eligibility for federal awards,” Trentacoste says. “Other factors, the largest being the cost of your school, play into the amount and type of aid you can receive.”
Additionally, each school has its own formula for determining aid, so you may owe less than the EFC calculated on the FAFSA.
Myth 8: You can’t fill out the FAFSA until your parents file their taxes
Truth: File it with an estimate based on last year; submit a correction later
You need to file the FAFSA for the upcoming school year based on the previous year’s tax information. But if you haven’t filed your taxes yet, you can use your prior-prior year’s return to estimate answers to FAFSA questions, including your adjusted gross income, income tax and net worth.
You can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which will populate the FAFSA based on your previous year returns. Don’t forget to update the information once the taxes are filed. It’s easy to make a correction to your FAFSA online.
Myth 9: It doesn’t make a difference whether you complete a FAFSA online or on paper
Truth: Online is faster and more accurate
“There is a difference,” Trentacoste says. “Paper FAFSAs can be confusing to complete and have to travel through the mail and be entered into the Department of Education computer system, which can take up to three weeks for processing.”
Completing the application online is easy and you’ll be walked through the process, with questions only relevant to your situation. This increases the chances your school will receive accurate information, often within two or three days, Trentacoste says.
Additionally, you can use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically fill in fields with your or your family’s latest tax information. This not only makes the process much faster, but it also greatly increases accuracy, making it more likely you’ll receive the aid you need.
Myth 10: The FAFSA is long and confusing
Truth: It’s not as bad as you think it will be, provided you’re prepared
With its reputation of being a major headache, the FAFSA often causes stress for applicants, Nickel says. But he likens FAFSA anxiety to worrying about going to the dentist: It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be.
“Wondering and worrying and fretting is actually a lot worse than doing the form,” Nickel says.
If you’re prepared with documents — including your Social Security card, tax information and your current bank statements — filling out the FAFSA can take just 30 minutes.