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Avoid the Common FAFSA Mistakes That Can Cost You

SE FASFA Dos and Donts

Filling out the FAFSA can be confusing and frustrating. But none of this should dissuade you from filling out the form. “Everything is correctable, but it’s really helpful to get it right the first time."

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the gateway to federal and state financial aid. While athletic scholarships can help ease college costs, full rides are an exception and not the norm.

FAFSA, which opened last October 1, is the place to start to build a robust scholarship package. In states such as Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky, awards are made until funds are depleted. Each state has a different application deadline and there is no uniform college deadline, either.

Not being aware of deadlines is just one of the FAFSA mistakes that can cost families. Here are some others:


FAFSA is the mechanism through which schools gain insight into a family’s financial circumstances. Michael Runiewicz, Director, Student Financial Services at Washington University in St. Louis, states, “A lot of families who think they won’t qualify for aid, in reality, qualify for and oftentimes receive significant amounts of aid. In the case of expensive private schools, even if a family makes more than $300,000 a year, students might receive need-based aid if their family has more than one student in college.


The word “you” trips up many parents filling out the FAFSA. “You” almost always refers to the student,” Runiewicz notes. “Parents think it refers to them because they are the ones reading it. For example, for the question, ‘Are you married?’ a couple will answer yes. That’s a significant mistake. The same thing can happen to questions about income. If a parent puts their income in the student section of the FAFSA, that, too, is a big problem. You have to read the questions closely.”


This is a common reporting error. What a family deposits into their retirement plan is considered untaxed income and needs to be reported, but not what they have in their retirement plan. Another common error is reporting any equity in the home. Some families tend to think of their home as an asset, and so they may accidentally include that on the FAFSA.


FAFSA recently changed the way it asks for a family’s financial data. Families are now directed to provide “prior, prior year” data, meaning that students entering college in the fall of 2018 will be asked to provide financial information from 2016.

“This can potentially be confusing to families because their financial circumstances might have changed over that time,” Runiewicz explains. “Maybe a parent has changed or lost a job, they’ve gone through a divorce or something else has happened that has impacted that family’s financial circumstances. They believe their story is not being told correctly and they decide to provide 2017 data they consider to be more reflective of their current situation. That’s going to be a problem for us. We don’t want families to self-adjust anything; we are the ones required to make those adjustments on behalf of the family.”


Neglecting to sign the FAFSA is an all-too-common mistake, according to Dan Mann, Director of Student Financial Aid at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “The FAFSA will not be processed until those signatures are there,” he emphasizes.

Care must be taken, he adds, for signees to use the correct FAFSA-designated pin numbers when signing electronically. Mix-ups occur when a parent signs with their student’s number and vice-versa. Related to that for families filling out separate FAFSA's for more than one student is to not mix up the pin numbers and social security numbers.

“It does hold up financial assistance awards,” Mann says. “It slows the down the process and could jeopardize meeting aid deadlines.”

Filling out the FAFSA can be confusing and frustrating. But none of this should dissuade you from filling out the form. “Everything is correctable, but it’s really helpful to get it right the first time,” Mann states. “It makes the process go so much smoother.”

Read more: Know your FAFSA deadlines

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